If you are experiencing a stroke there is a good chance the emergency response personnel will attribute the symptoms to a different condition.
There have been a growing number of misdiagnosed strokes in emergency rooms with disastrous consequences. While stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States and the leading cause of disability in adults, the chances of a misdiagnosing a stroke are alarmingly high.
A stroke occurs when blood flow is cut off to an area of the brain, depriving brain cells of oxygen.
The brain cells begin to die and a person loses those abilities controlled by that area of the brain, such as speaking or lifting an arm.
There are three main types of strokes.
When a blood clot blocks blood to the brain, an ischemic stroke occurs. The major risk factor for ischemic stroke is high blood pressure. Less common, though more likely to result in death, are hemorrhagic strokes caused by a blood aneurysm burst or a weakened blood vessel leak. The third type of stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA or “mini-stroke”), occurs when blood supply to the brain is temporarily blocked. The victim experiences stroke symptoms, but they last only minutes and there is no permanent damage.
Common symptoms of stroke include:
- Confusion or trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Numbness or weakness in the arm, leg or face
- Trouble seeing out of one or both eyes
- Dizziness, difficulty walking, or maintaining balance
- Severe headache with no apparent cause
Though more and more people are aware of the symptoms of stroke, there have been a growing number of cases where an emergency room doctor failed to recognize a stroke victim.
A study at Johns Hopkins showed that 13 percent of people admitted to a hospital with a stroke diagnosis had visited the emergency room up to 30 days earlier complaining of dizziness and headaches. Approximately one quarter of those patients returned to the hospital in the midst of a stroke.
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In many cases, a patient’s symptoms are often confused with less serious conditions.
A person may go to the ER complaining of dizziness or a headache and they are diagnosed with an ear infection or migraine. ER doctors often miss the signs of stroke in minorities, women and those under 45. Because young people are less likely to have a stroke and women are less likely to exhibit classic stroke symptoms such as difficulty speaking, doctors fail to associate their symptoms with stroke. Trouble speaking or understanding can be misinterpreted as dementia in older patients. Language or cultural barriers causing miscommunication may also exist.
Strokes are major medical emergencies and must be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible to prevent permanent damage.
Effective treatment is dependent on correct diagnosis of the cause of a stroke. In ischemic strokes, the goal is to break or remove the blood clot; in hemorrhagic strokes, the goal is to stop the bleeding. How severely a person is affected by stroke depends on the area of the brain where the stroke occurred and the extent of brain damage. A minor stroke may result in temporary weakness of an arm or leg while a larger stroke can cause permanent paralysis or loss of speech. While some patients recover completely, more than two-thirds will have some type of disability.