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The First 3 Hours: How to Care for a Loved One at the Onset of a Stroke

Medically reviewed by Seunggu Han, MD on November 13, 2017Written by Valencia Higuera on November 13, 2017
stroke timing and onset

If a loved one is having a stroke, immediate emergency care is essential. A stroke occurs when blood flow is cut off to a part of the brain. Individuals who get to the hospital soon after the onset of symptoms (within the first three hours) have a better chance of experiencing minimal effects or making a full recovery.

Many people don’t know the first symptoms of a stroke. Symptoms can be subtle and may include a pins and needles sensation on one side of the body, a severe headache, dizziness, confusion, muscle weakness, or poor coordination. Some people ignore these signs, which can lead to brain damage or permanent disability.

If you know how to recognize the signs of a stroke, you’re in a better position to help a loved one. Taking quick action can mean the difference between life or death. Here’s how to care for a loved one at the onset of a stroke.

Hour 1: Recognize the warning signs of a stroke and act fast.

If a loved one collapses or loses consciousness, your first instinct may be to call 911. Keep in mind, however, that someone having a stroke may not lose consciousness.

The symptoms of a stroke vary from person to person, so it’s important to be familiar with all of the signs. Don’t assume your loved one is OK because they’re able to speak or walk. Be observant and ask questions if you notice anything odd.

Is your loved one slurring their speech? Do they seem confused? Ask them to smile. Does one side of their face droop? If so, call 911 and ask for an ambulance. Other first signs of a stroke include stumbling, a change in gait, or an inability to coordinate one’s steps.

It may take a few minutes for the ambulance to arrive. During this time, stay on the phone with the emergency dispatcher and don’t leave your loved one’s side. Monitor their condition and keep track of their symptoms.

Have them lie down on their side with their head elevated to increase blood flow. Also, take note of the time when stroke symptoms began. If necessary, perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) until the ambulance arrives.

Hour 2: Stay with your loved one at the hospital.

If your loved one is unconscious when you arrive at the hospital, they’ll receive immediate treatment in the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU). You’ll have an opportunity to speak with the doctor and relay necessary information.

If your loved one is conscious upon arrival, they’ll be taken to an area for further testing. Remain with them during this time. They may have difficulty understanding or communicating with the doctor. Since you were present at the onset of symptoms, you can speak on their behalf.

Inform the doctor when symptoms first began and provide information about your loved one’s medical history, such as their medications, medical conditions, and allergies. The information received from the doctor and hospital staff may be overwhelming, and they may need help understanding what’s happening. Take notes for your loved one, ask questions on their behalf for clarification, and then explain the next steps in simple language, if necessary.

Hour 3: Be positive, and remain calm.

Your loved one will undergo a series of tests while in the hospital to identify the stroke and check the extent of brain injury. This includes magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a CT scan.

Other possible tests include a carotid ultrasound to check for a blockage in the arteries carrying blood to the brain, and an echocardiogram (echo test) to check for blood clots in other parts of the body. Their blood pressure is also monitored.

If a computed tomography (CT) scan or an X-ray finds a blood clot in their brain, they will receive medication to dissolve the blood clot and restore blood flow. It is vital that your loved one receives this medication as soon as possible to prevent permanent disability and brain damage, so never delay calling for help.

This can be a stressful and frightening time for them. It’s important that you remain calm and don’t panic. By staying positive, you can help your loved one stay calm.

They may have to remain in the hospital for a few days. Depending on the severity of the stroke, they might need to go to a rehabilitation facility.

Takeaway

A stroke can occur suddenly, but taking quick action at the onset of symptoms can potentially save someone’s life and prevent permanent disability.

The first three hours are crucial, so learn how to recognize warning signs of a stroke and don’t delay seeking emergency help.

CMS Id: 136904