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Time = Brain: Call 9-1-1

You may have heard the FAST acronym for stroke symptoms (Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Time to call 9-1-1).

That last one is most important: Call 9-1-1 to go to the hospital. The best indicator in treating a stroke effectively is time—how fast doctors are able to start treatment. The faster you begin treatment, the less damage to your brain. Calling an ambulance means that EMTs can assess you at home and take you to the right hospital for stroke care. They can alert the stroke team to be ready to continue testing and start treatment.

Strokes deprive parts of your brain of blood and oxygen, which kills brain cells. A 2005 study quantified it: For each minute a stroke is not treated, a patient loses 1.9 millionneurons. A stroke patient is not someone overreacting or making a fuss. They need treatment. Now. Call 9-1-1.

What Will the ER Team Want to Know About Your Stroke-Like Symptoms?

In the emergency room, the ER team will want to take a complete history to rule out other problems that have similar symptoms. They’ll ask questions like these:

  • When did the symptoms begin?
  • What were you doing when it started?
  • How long have they lasted?
  • Has it been constant or does it come and go?
  • Did you faint or lose consciousness?
  • Does anything make it better or worse?
  • Do you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol or take medications for them?
  • Are you on any medications?
  • Are you taking any aspirin products?
  • Have you ever smoked?
  • Has anyone in your family had similar symptoms?
  • Were you sick or injured recently?
  • Has this happened before?
  • If you did have a past event, how is this one the same or different?
  • Do you have any other symptoms, like nausea, vomiting, fever, cough, sweating…anything else?
  • Have you had a recent period of inactivity, such as resting up after a surgery?

What Tests May be Performed to Evaluate Chest Pain?

Tests to diagnose a stroke concentrate on the brain, blood vessels and heart. Some of these tests include:

  • Blood tests
  • Imaging tests/radiology
  • EEG

Ischemic vs. Hemorrhagic Stroke

There are two types of stroke and the treatment for each is very different. So the first step in the ER will be to figure out which type is happening (usually with a CT scan).

  • Ischemic stroke. A clot blocks a blood vessel in the brain. Most strokes are ischemic strokes.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke. A weakened blood vessel in the brain ruptures. Blood vessels can rupture from uncontrolled high blood pressure, aneurysms or arteriovenous malformations (AVM).

Get Help, Even if Symptoms Go Away

You may have stroke symptoms like headache or one-sided numbness that went away after a few minutes. You should still go to the emergency room. You may have had what many people call a mini-stroke, or transient ischemic attack (TIA).

During a TIA, a clot blocks a blood vessel briefly and then clears. It puts you at greater risk for a stroke, and that risk is greatest in the first few days after a TIA. Seeking medical care for TIA symptoms, even after they have stopped, means doctors can diagnose you and start you on treatment to prevent a stroke.

Why Call 9-1-1 Instead of Getting a Ride to the Hospital?

The second stroke symptoms start, an invisible countdown clock begins. The most effective treatment for strokes is a clot-busting drug called tPA that must be given within 3 to 4.5 hours of the start of symptoms. But you can’t just walk into an ER and expect an IV of tPA.

Doctors need to get your medical history (some patients can’t get tPA) and a CT scan of your brain (to be sure your stroke is ischemic – tPA would worsen a hemorrhagic stroke). That all eats into your precious tPA window. Now imagine an hour delay getting to the hospital because you got stuck in traffic.

Ambulances don’t get stuck in traffic and EMS teams can get your medical history en route, so you arrive at the ER ready to go for a CT scan. You’ve increased your chances to get tPA and increased the likelihood of a good outcome.

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ER Checklist: What to Bring

  • Insurance card and photo ID
  • List of current medications and dosages
  • List of allergies
  • Test results or information related to recent diagnosis or chronic condition
  • Phone number and correct spelling of your primary physician’s name
  • Phone number for your emergency contact
  • List of questions and pen/paper to write answers
  • Glasses and hearing aids
  • Healthcare paperwork (advance directive, healthcare proxy, DNR)
  • Cell phone and charger
  • Someone to help translate if you’re not fluent in English
  • Another adult to help or keep you company
  • For suspected poisoning: Bring the medication, household cleaner or other substance with you, including the container
  • For kids, you might also want to bring a comfort item, like a stuffed animal, and something to do (e.g., toy or coloring book)

Do not delay seeking medical attention to find these items.

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