Stroke awareness saves lives

Quick: what are the signs of a stroke?

By Marg Sheridan
If you are not sure, you're amongst the majority of Saskatchewanians. In fact, while most people know what a heart attack looks like, when it comes to knowing when we, or someone close to us, is having a stroke a good number of people are in the dark.

"We think, in this province, there are about 2,000 strokes in the formal database per year," said Dr. Michael Kelly, the Saskatchewan Clinical Stroke Research Chair and an associate professor of Surgery in the Division of Neurosurgery at the College of Medicine. "But we think that database is probably off by about 30 or 40 per cent, so maybe 3,000 a year.

"And in Saskatoon we have one or two stroke alerts in the emergency department per day at RUH - So it's a common problem."

So common, in fact, that nearly 14,000 Canadians die from stroke each year, and there were an estimated 50,000 strokes across the country in 2012, making it the third leading cause of death. And while we may think that stroke patients are all elderly, the truth is not quite so age-centric.

"Not all stroke patients are old," explained Kelly. "That's a misconception. Stroke is a tough disease because it's much harder to diagnose than say a heart attack where everybody knows the symptoms."

In fact newborns have as high a risk as the elderly, and while they're more likely to recover from a stroke, some very serious complications can occur – especially if undiagnosed.

It is such a worry for the Heart and Stroke Foundation that they've launched a new campaign titled ‘FAST—Face, Arms, Speech and Time' to help educate the public on the signs of a stroke.

Is their face drooping? Are they unable to raise either arms? Is their speech slurred or jumbled? If any of these symptoms are present call 9-1-1 immediately.

"The symptoms can vary, but it's usually one side of the body weakens, or paralysis of the arm, leg or face; Numbness; loss of sensation; (a stroke on the) left side of the brain often is accompanied by difficulty with speech," Kelly stressed. "And if you have small arteries, the basilar artery in the back by the brain stem can give you all sorts of problems from double-vision, and unsteadiness to coma."

In fact, Kelly suggests that even if you're not 100 per cent sure it's a stroke that you should call for an ambulance.

Saskatoon Health Region has a specially designed stroke protocol that's triggered as soon as a patient calls 9-1-1. Emergency Medical Services will notify the neurology team at the Royal University Hospital that a potential stroke patient is on their way, and the team will meet the patient when they arrive. But the emergency call is key, because if a patient is taken to the hospital by a family member they have a two-in-three chance of going to the wrong hospital.

A big problem Kelly is finding in Saskatchewan is a hesitancy, or unwillingness, of patients to see a doctor when the symptoms first present themselves.

"People with ruptured aneurysms have a sudden onset of the worst headache of their life," Kelly explained about a common symptom. "We have multiple people per month who try to tough it out for days at a time at home. When I was elsewhere I never saw that, and I talked to colleagues across the country and USA and nobody else sees that, so it's a unique thing here, the delayed presentation.

"A huge portion of stroke is the rehab, the homecare, and probably - most importantly - the prevention of stroke."

And the prevention for stroke is pretty similar to the heart attack preventative measures most of us are already aware of:

 Manage stress

 Quit smoking

 Maintain a healthy weight

 Control blood pressure and cholesterol levels

  Nurture an active lifestyle

 Drink alcohol in moderation

February is Heart Month - to get more information on the Heart and Stroke Foundation's FAST program you can visit their site here.

Marg Sheridan is the online communications co-ordinator in the College of Medicine.