There's only about a four-hour window for getting a clot-busting drug that can effectively treat a stroke, but a new study shows that many stroke victims are still not getting to the hospital fast enough to take advantage of the drug.
In fact, an analysis of 114,420 stroke patients by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that patients are getting to the emergency room even slower than they did in 2005.
The CDC researchers found that almost 44 percent of patients who had strokes between 2005 and 2010 took more than 4.5 hours to get to the emergency room after their first symptoms. That's up from the almost 40 percent who hesitated before going to the hospital in 2005.
At the same time, the percentage of stroke victims who got to the hospital within two hours also decreased — from 40 percent in 2005 to 35 percent in 2010 — another sign that people may not understand the need to get prompt medical care.
About 795,000 Americans suffer a stroke each year, according to the CDC. The most common type (87 percent of all strokes) is ischemic stroke, caused by a blockage in the blood flow to the brain.
Study lead author Mary G. George, medical officer in the CDC's Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, said the new findings indicate that people need to learn the warning signs of stroke and the importance of calling 911. The longer people wait, the more brain damage a stroke can cause.
The study findings also indicated a slight drop in the number of people calling for an ambulance to take them to the hospital, possibly because not all insurance plans cover EMS.
"This is a perennial problem," says Larry B. Goldstein, director of the Duke Stroke Center, who was not involved in the study. "Someone has to recognize a stroke is occurring and that they need to call 911."
Goldstein says that "a number of studies" show that people who use EMS get to the hospital quicker and get better care than other patients "usually because the 911 system contacts the hospital while the patient is en route," allowing the emergency room to prepare for that patient.
Stroke symptoms, according to the National Stroke Association, include sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body; confusion, trouble speaking or understanding; trouble seeing from one or both eyes; trouble walking, dizziness or loss of balance; and a sudden severe headache with no known cause.
Goldstein says stroke education should also target younger people, who often are with the older, higher-risk patients when a stroke occurs. "With brain injury, the patient may not even be able to recognize the symptoms," he notes.
The study was presented last month at the American Stroke Association annual meeting in New Orleans.
Also of interest: Are you having a stroke?