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'Don't ignore possible stroke symptoms', warns AHA/ASA

A worrying number of American adults are ignoring symptoms consistent with warning or "mini" strokes, according to a new survey conducted by the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA). The study found 35 per cent of respondents experienced at least one sign of a transient ischemic attack (TIA), yet only three percent took the recommended action. 

A TIA has the same symptoms as a stroke, but these usually last only a few minutes or up to 24 hours. The ASA recommends seeking immediate emergency help should they appear, even if they clear up without treatment. Symptoms of a stroke may include sudden confusion, numbness in the face, arm or leg (often on one side of the body), difficulty seeing out of one or both eyes, problems walking, loss of balance or a severe headache with no apparent cause. 

According to the survey, the most common symptom - reported in one in five cases - was a sudden severe headache without any known cause. The second most common was sudden trouble walking, dizziness and loss of balance and coordination (14 percent). The acronym F.A.S.T is used as an aid to remembering the most common signs of a stroke: 

  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty
  • Time to call 911

"Only a formal medical diagnosis with brain imaging can determine whether you’re having a TIA or a stroke. If you or someone you know experiences a stroke warning sign that comes on suddenly - whether it goes away or not - call 911 right away to improve chances of an accurate diagnosis, treatment and recovery," said Mitch Elkin, MD, chair of the American Stroke Association. 

The expert warned ignoring any stroke sign could be a "deadly mistake". Around 15 percent of strokes are preceded by a TIA and those who do experience a TIA are considered significantly more likely to have a stroke in the following three months. About five million Americans have had a self-report TIA diagnosed by a physician, but Dr Elkind observed the latest survey suggests a true figure far higher than this. 

Patients at risk of a stroke, or who have had a TIA, may be advised to make lifestyle changes to prevent another episode. These may include stopping smoking, losing weight or changing diet. Medication is also likely to be part of the treatment. If a physician diagnoses a clot blocking the flow of blood to the brain, drugs with blood-thinning properties, such as Aspirin may be recommended. The only FDA-approved treatment for ischemic strokes is administering the tissue plasminogen activator (Alteplase IV r-tPA).  

Patients who have had a stroke may also be advised to try other medication to reduce the chance of another incident. Medicines often prescribed include drugs to control high blood pressure, reduce atrial fibrillation. Vitamin k antagonists with anti-coagulant properties such as Warfarin are also common treatments.