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Vital Signs: Seeking care immediately for stroke symptoms is your safest bet | Lifestyles

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Stroke is one of the leading causes of death and serious, long-term disability in the United States. Yet, a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine this month suggested that the number of patients seeking care for severe stroke symptoms at U.S. hospitals dropped by almost 40% in March and April.

Obviously, this time period marked the beginning of stay-at-home orders initiated by many states in response to COVID-19. What we don’t know for sure, however, is why quarantine has kept so many people from seeking emergency stroke treatment.

Our best guess: People have refrained from seeking care for stroke symptoms because of a fear of exposure to coronavirus. Another explanation is that people at highest risk — the elderly, in particular — are isolated from those who might recognize and respond when stroke symptoms appear. These are just hypotheses at this point; research is currently under way to better understand this dramatic decline in stroke-related hospital evaluations, which will take time.

Act FAST: Emergency signs

What we know now, without a doubt, is that stroke is a medical emergency that requires immediate care. The sooner a person is treated for stroke, the better the outcome will be in almost all cases. That’s why it’s so important — coronavirus or no coronavirus — to seek emergency care if you or a loved one experiences any signs or symptoms of stroke.

These may include any sudden change in neurological function, but some of the more common stroke symptoms can best be remembered with the following acronym: BEFAST.

» B stands for Balance difficulty

» E stands for Eyes or loss of vision

» F stands for Face Drooping

» S is Speech Difficulty; and

Stroke is most common among people with certain risk factors, including older adults who:

» Have high blood pressure

» Have a history of heart disease or atherosclerosis

However, there are many causes of stroke, and it can affect anyone at any age. In fact, one disturbing discovery during this pandemic is a possible increased risk for stroke among younger people diagnosed with COVID-19. Further research is necessary to confirm the exact cause, but based on clinical observations, a small subset of patients with COVID-19 develop an inflammatory response in the body that causes blood clots. These blood clots may then cause ischemic stroke.

The bottom line: everyone should be aware of his or her personal risk factors for stroke. Now more than ever, you need to know the signs and symptoms of stroke so that you can identify it and seek treatment for yourself or a loved one as quickly as possible. When in doubt, always call 911 and allow medical personnel to determine your care needs.

Safety and excellence always a priority

Day to day, it’s important to continue taking the recommended precautions to limit the spread of coronavirus: stay home except to retrieve necessities; wear a mask when out in public; maintain a safe distance; and wash hands frequently. But don’t allow your fear of coronavirus exposure to keep you from getting the emergency care you need to prevent long-term disability.

UVa Health System clinics are now open for in-person care. Team members across the health system are taking every precaution to protect patients, staff and community members from exposure to COVID-19. This includes following all guidelines recommended by the federal government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as other more stringent safety protocols adopted internally within our hospitals and clinics.

The UVa Health team is well equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE). They are streamlining the number of providers who interact with patients at the bedside. Plus, they are using more innovative ways to provide care with minimal contact, including telemedicine or virtual visits. This is a tool UVa has employed for decades to assess stroke patients in remote locations using video technology.

Now more than ever, virtual visits have become a necessity in many specialties, such as stroke care, as we navigate life under quarantine. The constant throughout this crisis and beyond is the level of care provided by a Comprehensive Stroke Center like UVa that has the most advanced resources and expertise available to meet the emergent needs of patients safely and effectively.

Dr. Andrew Southerland is a neurologist at the University of Virginia Health System.

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