Don’t dismiss stroke symptoms during pandemic

Some who should seek medical attention may not because of pandemic concerns

A doctor wears a mask in front of a computer while he talks with a patient in an examination room

National trends suggest people are ignoring signs of stroke because they’re apprehensive about entering a health care setting amid a pandemic.

Meanwhile, medical providers advise that quick treatment of stroke symptoms is crucial. They add that avoiding or postponing medical attention based on fears about the coronavirus is using poor judgment.

“We know there is nothing that this virus and the infection has done to reduce the number of strokes that are happening,” said Dr. Divyajot Sandhu, a Sanford Health expert in neurocritical care at Sanford Neurology Clinic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“The fact is that stroke centers across the nation have seen decreases in people seeking attention for all types of stroke. The only logical explanation is that less people are seeking care because concerns of the pandemic and the virus weigh heavily on them.”

Stroke symptoms can’t be ignored

Of particular concern are those whose first signs of a stroke are relatively mild and temporary. Those people may decide to not seek medical attention.

Transient ischemic attacks (TIA) are often referred to as mini-strokes because the temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain doesn’t cause permanent damage. Symptoms include things like slurred speech, weakness of the face, weakness of the arm or leg on one side, or changes in sensation on one side.

When those symptoms go away, however, the potential for a stroke does not.

“Some of these folks are not seeking medical attention because they no longer have the symptoms,” Dr. Sandhu said. “The problem with these TIAs and minor strokes is that, for a sizable number of people, it is a warning sign that there is more to come in the next 24 to 48 hours.”

To summarize, it is not the time to be playing hunches.

“Stroke is a medical emergency no matter what,” said Dr. Gautam Sachdeva, a specialist in stroke neurology and neuro-intervention at Sanford Neuroscience Clinic in Fargo. “The deficits one could suffer from a stroke can be disabling and permanent.”

Prompt attention is key

The sooner patients seek medical attention, the more likely it is those deficits may be reversible. Outcomes can be improved.

Related: COVID-19 jitters shouldn’t keep you from the ER

Health care providers find the trend toward not seeking medical attention for stroke-like symptoms troubling. The potential benefits of prompt diagnosis and treatment far outweigh risks.

A hesitancy to seek immediate attention may be because people who have coronavirus symptoms are concerned about the possibility of spreading the virus to others.

Alternatively, they may be concerned that by entering a hospital, they are entering an area with a dense cluster of infection and fear a greater risk to be infected.

Either way, the safeguards in place exceed the guidelines put in place by the CDC, according to Dr. Sandhu.

“At Sanford, we isolate patients who have either suspicion or proven diagnosis of COVID in a separate wing of the hospital,” he said. “They do not come in contact with any other patients we have on the inpatient or outpatient side of the hospital.”

That applies to all Sanford health care centers.

“I want to assure everyone in our community that we are taking enhanced precautions as we face the COVID pandemic,” Dr. Sachdeva said. “We are screening patients and staff for COVID on entry to the hospital and are using the proper protective equipment to avoid spread from person to person.”

Stroke concerns include all ages

Nothing has changed, in other words. Sanford physicians continue to follow American Stroke and American Heart Association guidelines. They still act just as fast in treating symptoms.

“That’s an important message to put forward in the community,” Dr. Sachdeva said. “Our care of acute stroke patients has not changed.”

Physicians are discovering, as health care’s understanding of the virus continues to evolve, that young people who have contracted the virus are more susceptible to blood clots and strokes. It’s a reminder that, ultimately, one’s personal welfare is tied to being sensitive to the signs.

“Even if you’re in a younger age group, COVID-19 has shown to present with acute strokes in patients who do not have other vascular risk factors,” Dr. Sachdeva said. “Even if you have mild symptoms and you’re a younger person, it’s important to seek medical attention.”

The faster, the better

Addressing stroke-like symptoms quickly can make a huge difference in recovery. The disease’s potentially devastating effects can be minimized or avoided in many cases with prompt attention.

“We’re here to provide that care,” Dr. Sachdeva said. “We want people to seek medical attention even during the pandemic. We have put numerous mitigation strategies in place to keep you safe while coming to the hospital for your health care.”

Be FAST

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. Become familiar with the acronym FAST in remembering and recognizing signs of a stroke.

Call 911 right away if you experience these symptoms:

  • F: Facial drooping, usually on one side
  • A: Arm weakness (one arm hangs or drifts down)
  • S: Speech difficulties such as slurring
  • T: Time to call 911 now

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Posted In Brain & Spine, Coronavirus, Emergency Medicine, Neurology, Sioux Falls, Wellness

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