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Time is everything when it comes to stroke recovery

When it comes to strokes, Dr. Daniel McHugh said time is everything.

“If you feel you are having any symptoms of a stroke, you should call 911 immediately,” McHugh stressed, who works in the emergency medicine department at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Carbon in Lehighton.

Waiting too long, he said, could have a much more serious outcome.

May is National Stroke Awareness Month, and McHugh said strokes are common.

About 800,000 are reported each year in the United States.

“Every 40 seconds to a minute, somebody is having a stroke in the U.S.,” he said. It is the fifth cause of death and the leading cause of disability in the country, he noted.

McHugh said there are two types of stroke. The more common ischemic stroke causes a sudden loss of blood circulation to a specific part of the brain, while the more serious and rare hemorrhagic stroke is caused by a bleeding blood vessel in the brain.

Signs and symptoms could be similar in both types.

“Typically, it is a sudden onset of a focal neurological deficit. It could be weakness or numbness in the face, arms and legs,” he explained. “It’s typically on one side of the body.”

Other more subtle symptoms include a sudden onset of confusion and difficulty speaking or understanding speech. Vision changes, dizziness and problems with balance can also be symptoms.

“We definitely recommend that you do not wait” to seek medical treatment, McHugh said.

He noted the goal is to have a patient arrive at the emergency department within three hours of symptom onset.

“Our goal is to administer treatment as soon as possible,” he said.

Medications can be given in most cases, or a minimally invasive surgery can retrieve a blood clot.

“It can be such a subtle presentation that a very small percentage of people actually recognize that they are having a stroke,” he said of symptoms. “Some people wait too long or even wait until the next day to see if it goes away. We do not recommend that.”

Waiting too long could result in death or disability.

“If you feel you are having a stroke or symptoms that may be like a stroke, you should come immediately,” McHugh stressed.

Dr. Shahzad Khan, a neurologist who sees patients at Lehigh Valley Physicians Group-Carbon in Lehighton, and LVPG-Hazleton, said stokes can happen at any age.

“There are some factors that can predispose a person to having a stroke,” he said.

For some, it’s genetics.

“But by far, it is hypertension that is the major risk factor,” Khan said.

Hypertension is a “modifiable factor,” he explained, and something that can be changed.

So, too, can other risk factors like smoking, high cholesterol, untreated sleep apnea, high body mass index and low physical activity.

“These are the factors that we can modify,” Khan said.

He recommended staying active, quitting smoking and keeping blood pressure under control.

“Take your medication. Try to eat a healthy diet and have healthy habits,” Khan said. “These are the things that can help prevent a stroke.”

Non-modifiable factors include age, genetics and race. For example, black non-Hispanics have a higher chance of having a stroke.

“And as you grow older, the chances of having a stroke get higher,” Khan explained of the age factor.

He said those who see their medical professional on a regular basis for checkups likely have had screenings or blood testing to look for health conditions that could lead to strokes.

But he said it’s not the end of the world for stroke survivors, even those who are suffering from disabilities brought on by the event.

“In some patients, we have seen improvements up to a couple of years. They keep getting better and better,” he said. “It can take longer than you want to be in that situation, but it is definitely not the end of the world.”

Khan has seen patients rendered unable to speak after a stroke talking again, and those unable to walk doing so with the help of a cane or walker.

“Fortunately with advanced medical technique and rehabilitation there is hope for them to improve,” he said. “But prevention is better.”

Dr. Daniel McHugh
Dr. Shahzad Khan