A ticking clock
Numbness or pain in the left arm; shortness of breath; and pressure on the chest.
The symptoms of a heart attack have been ingrained in society by educational campaigns and popular culture. But when it comes to strokes, the warning signs can be nebulous and easily overlooked.
"The signs and symptoms of a stroke can be subtle," said Dr. Gregory Kays, director of emergency medicine at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing.
As many as 130,000 Americans will die from strokes this year, while leaving hundreds of thousands more permanently disabled and causing close to $40 billion in health care costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Stroke was the third-leading cause of death in Minnesota in 2010, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Kays said the key to getting those statistics under control is spotting stroke symptoms early and getting treatment as soon as possible.
As the American Stroke Association says: Time lost is brain lost.
@Normal1:When it comes to spotting strokes early, health experts developed the acronym FAST, which stands for:
Time to call 911
"Facial droops, arm weakness, speech difficulties -- If you experience anything along those lines, then you really do want to pay attention," Kays said.
Other symptoms of a stroke include sudden numbness, confusion, vision loss and acute headache, according to the American Stroke Association.
If an individual experiences these symptoms, Kays said not to hesitate when calling for help.
"One of the biggest issues for us is the timing. Someone might experience stroke-like symptoms but wait two or three days to see if they might go away," Kays said. "At that point, they're not going to go away."
If a stroke is caught early, doctors can administer thrombolysis, a pharmaceutical therapy that has proven effective at opening clogged blood vessels that can cause a stroke.
The only catch is that treatment must be started within three hours of the the stroke's onset.
"If someone wakes up with stroke symptoms or we can't tell when it began, they don't qualify for that type of treatment," Kays said.
For that reason, experts recommend making note of the time that stroke symptoms begin. That information can be used by doctors to determine the best course of treatment.
"The sooner they get here the better. The clock is ticking on those kinds of medications," Kays said.
When they are sudden and acute, stroke symptoms can be hard to ignore, but Kays said early signs of trouble can easily be overlooked. And, for people living alone, can go unnoticed for days.
"If you just have the facial droop, you might not notice that yourself," Kays said. "We're not all staring into mirrors all the time."
Weakness in the arms or numbness can be written off as harmless, Kays added. "If its just some clumsiness or weakness, you might just think you slept on it funny."
Moreover, noticing speech difficulties can be difficult for someone living alone.
"If they're not speaking to anyone, it can occur without them being aware. So having someone around is beneficial," he said.
Living with the risk
One of the challenges to preventing strokes is how sudden they can occur. But Kays said there are tests and risks factors that can help determine if a person is more likely to have a stroke.
Some of the biggest risk factors are diabetes, smoking and high blood pressure, Kays said.
"All of those issues raise red flags," he said. "Working to reduce them is huge to preventing strokes."
"High blood pressure damages the arteries and can create weak places that rupture easily or thin spots that fill up with blood and balloon out from the artery wall," according to the American Heart Association.
Chronic high blood pressure is among the leading causes of hemorrhagic strokes.
While there is no easy test to spot a imminent stroke, physicians can listen for precursors like an arrhythmia or obstruction of carotid arteries at regular checkups, Kays said.
If a patient is living with increased risk of stroke, Kays said one of the best options is signing up for an emergency alert service.
"Particularly for the elderly living at home, services like Lifeline are very beneficial," Kays said. "If they find themselves having a stroke and can't speak, they can push a button and have help come to them."
But most importantly, Kays said to skip the local clinic if a person suspects a stroke.
"If someone calls for an appointment and even suggests stroke-like symptoms, our triage nurses are sending them to the emergency room by 911," Kays said.
"Don't stop at the clinic; Don't call to be seen," he said. "Just get here."