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What to Do If You Think You're Having a Stroke

Stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States and a major cause of disability in adults. The key to surviving stroke and reducing disability is to act fast at the first signs of stroke. Call 911 immediately. Treatment should be given within three hours of the first symptoms to reduce long-term disability.

Signs and symptoms

If you think you or a loved one is having a stroke, remember the acronym: F-A-S-T.

  • F - Face: face drooping, an unusual smile (one side of the mouth droops or looks odd), numbness
  • A - Arms: weakness, numbness, trouble walking
  • S - Speech: slurred speech, inappropriate words or silence
  • T - Time: time to call 911

Severe headache or trouble seeing in one or both eyes, along with one of the above signs, can mean a stroke. Even if you’re not sure, if you have symptoms, play it safe – see a doctor.

What to do

“The biggest piece of advice I can give is to call 911 immediately, and let the operator know it’s a stroke,” says Jeff Wagner, MD, a neurosurgeon and the stroke program director at Swedish Medical Center in Denver. And as soon as the symptoms start, check the time, so you’re able to tell the medical team, he says.

While you wait for the medical team to arrive, lay your loved one down flat. “Gravity actually makes some difference in the amount of blood flow that's getting to your brain. When there is a blocked blood vessel in the brain, you’re not getting the same amount of blood to that area, but other blood vessels can get blood there through other routes,” says Wagner. Lying flat on the ground may make the symptoms better temporarily and prevent some of the brain from being damaged while you wait, he adds.

Don’t drive yourself

You might think it’s faster to get in the car and head to the hospital on your own, but it’s better to wait for the medical crew. “The paramedics […] can start doing treatments that can make a difference on the way to the hospital,” says Wagner. They can also call ahead to the emergency room so that the doctors are ready and waiting.

The most effective stroke treatment is a blood thinner and clot-busting drug called tPA, or alteplase. It’s most effective if given within three hours after symptoms first start. That’s why it is critical that you get to the hospital fast. Not only do you have to get there within this three-hour timeframe, but also all the testing and diagnostic evaluation must be done before treatment can start, says Wagner.

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