Feeling Stroke Symptoms? Don't Let COVID-19 Fears Keep You From the ER

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stroke emergency

He first noticed clumsiness in his right hand -- couldn’t type, dropped his coffee. The first thing he thought of was, “I am having a stroke." But minutes later, it seemed better so he dismissed the thought. But when he tried to get up from his desk and his right leg gave way, he got worried but decided to lie down and rest.

A few hours later, he woke up and couldn’t lift his right arm, and when he called out for his wife, his speech was slurred. She immediately dialed 9-1-1, saying, “Please hurry -- my husband is having a stroke." As they anxiously awaited the few minutes for emergency medical services to arrive, he told her, “I thought it was going to get better."

As a stroke specialist, I have sadly heard that story many times. Stroke symptoms -- weakness on one side of the body, loss of feeling or vision, inability to think or speak -- are very frightening. Many of us know someone who has had a stroke and the need to deny that this could be happening is sometimes very strong.

What really has me worried now is that since March, most stroke centers across the United States -- including ours at University Hospitals -- have noted a dramatic decline of 30 percent or more in stroke admissions from the emergency room. In the hospital, we have also seen an alarming shift in the types of stroke, with most patients having a very severe stroke.

That has prompted many of us to think the fear of COVID-19 is preventing stroke victims from seeking out emergency care that could save their life and reduce their risk of disability from a stroke. We need to reassure patients and families that University Hospitals’ emergency rooms are open 24/7/365 to provide that life-saving care and following best practices for cleanliness, infection control and employee health so our patients and staff stay healthy.

Strokes, TIAs Are Medical Emergencies  

A stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the brain is blocked or bursts. Since the brain needs a constant supply of blood and oxygen from the blood vessels, brain cells can be injured within minutes of a stroke. A transient ischemic attack (TIA) occurs when a blood vessel is blocked for only a short time. These symptoms can last only 10 to 20 minutes but are an important warning sign.

Why are TIAs and strokes a medical emergency? In the first few days, 5 to 10 percent of TIAs are followed by a stroke and 20 percent of strokes can progress or worsen. Emergency testing and treatment can significantly reduce those risks to 2 percent or less.

And in the case of an acute stroke, where an artery is blocked, we have effective treatments to restore blood flow to the brain, like tPA the clot buster medicine, and mechanical thrombectomy, where a catheter is threaded through the artery to remove the clot. These life-saving treatments are only effective if given before the brain cells are irreversibly injured, and are most beneficial when treatment starts within hours of stroke symptoms.

Know the warning signs of stroke. And if you think you or someone you know is having a stroke, call 9-1-1 to get emergency treatment that could save their life.

Cathy Sila, MD, specializes in neurology and is Director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at University Hospitals.

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The board-certified stroke specialists at University Hospitals Comprehensive Stroke Center include vascular neurologists, neurosurgeons, neuro-critical care intensivists and interventional specialists, all of whom work together to combine their training and skill to handle the most complex neurovascular disorders. Learn more about UH Comprehensive Stroke Center.

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