June 30, 2022

Seconds count: Knowing the signs of a stroke

A Kaiser Permanente physician shares why fast detection and expert treatment are critical to preventing and treating strokes.

Strokes are a leading cause of death for Oregonians, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A person will experience a stroke when a blood vessel in the brain is blocked or bursts. Knowing the health risks and signs can help you identify, prevent, and reduce the effects of a stroke.

“Brain damage can begin within minutes,” said Jeremy Fields, MD, regional stroke director and director of interventional neuro radiology for Kaiser Permanente in Oregon and Southwest Washington. “That's why it's so important to know the symptoms of stroke and to act fast. Quick treatment can help limit damage to the brain and increase the chance of a full recovery.”

Every second counts

“Our stroke intervention team in Oregon is highly synchronized and provides rapid response to stroke patients,” said Dr. Fields. “Every second counts, as roughly 1.9 million brain cells per minute are lost during a stroke. Upon entering the emergency room, our team wraps around the patient — think a pit crew team in racing — and begins treatment as the member is being admitted.”

Expert care

Under Dr. Fields’ care, the Kaiser Permanente Sunnyside and Westside medical centers have grown from treating a few dozen complex stroke patients to diagnosing 1,100 members and providing the highest level of care.

In fact research done by the American Heart Association shows that Kaiser Permanente stroke patients receive the clot-busting medication r-tPA more than twice as fast as the national average.

Strokes are most common among people over age 60, but they can happen at any age. Certain lifestyle and medical factors put some people more at risk of having a stroke than others. Things like family history, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes — even having COVID-19 — can put you at greater risk of having a stroke.

Dr. Fields shares more about the importance of knowing the signs and risk factors for strokes.

Why is it so important to know the signs of a stroke?

Blood supply to the brain decreases during a stroke, resulting in a loss of oxygen and nutrients, which causes brain cells to die within minutes. That’s why it’s important to know the symptoms of a stroke so you can act fast. Quick treatment can help limit damage to the brain, prevent death, and increase the chance of a full recovery.

What are some of the key symptoms of a stroke?

Symptoms of a stroke appear abruptly and without warning. A stroke may cause sudden weakness or numbness, trouble with vision or speaking, confusion, or a severe headache. If you or someone you know has these symptoms, even if they go away quickly, you should call 911 immediately. The acronym “BE FAST” is a simple way to remember the main symptoms and things you should do during a stroke:

  • Balance: Check for a sudden loss of balance
  • Eyes: Check for a loss of vision in one or both eyes
  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty
  • Time to call 911 if these symptoms are present

I have a family history of strokes. What is my likelihood of having a stroke?

Strokes are the fourth leading killer in the U.S. — but they are often preventable and treatable. The biggest step you can take to prevent a stroke from happening is to control any risk factors you may have that increase your chances of having a stroke. These include high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and smoking.

Age, gender, and ethnicity are some risks that are uncontrollable: The risk of stroke doubles for each decade between the ages of 55 and 85. Men have a higher risk of stroke, but more women die from stroke. Black and Hispanic Americans have a higher risk of stroke.

What are some healthy lifestyle changes that may lower my risk of stroke?

To reduce your risk of stroke, you can make some important lifestyle changes that also improve your overall health. Work with your doctor to treat any health problems you have, such as managing your blood pressure or diabetes. Adopt a healthy lifestyle, which includes being active, exercising, eating heart-healthy foods, not smoking, and limiting alcohol.

Learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s stroke care.