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Don't wait to get help if you suspect a stroke

By Judy Fortin
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia -- Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States. It's also a leading cause of long-term disability. CNN Medical Correspondent Judy Fortin learned more about stroke from two neurologists at St. Joseph's Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Matthews Gwynn is chief of neurology, and Dr. Keith Sanders is director of the Stroke Center.

Fortin: What is a stroke?

Sanders: A stroke is a brain attack, a blockage of blood supply to the brain.

Gwynn: A stroke comes in two forms. It comes either from a hemorrhage or a rupture of an artery or a vein in the brain, or it's caused by a blockage of an artery in the brain. Either way, the brain tissues don't get the oxygen and sugar that they need to live, and therefore that part of the brain dies off. (Watch to learn more about stroke Video )

Fortin: The acronym "FAST" is being used in conjunction with stroke information. How will it help patients remember the symptoms?

Sanders: F stands for face. We are looking for asymmetry or weakness on one side of the face. Asking the patient to smile or show their teeth will show a droop on one side of the face. A is for arm: having the patient hold up their arms. And when there is a stroke, usually there is weakness on one side. S is for speech: Ask the patient if they can understand you, and ask them to repeat a simple phrase. It helps show if their speech centers in the brain are intact. T equals time. It is very important to get to the emergency room quickly. There is nothing that can be done at home for stoke patients

Fortin: What should you do if you experience stroke symptoms?

Gwynn: Stop what you're doing. Get someone to get you to the hospital immediately. If we can get you into the hospital and treated within a few hours, we can often stop the damage that is happening to the brain and be able to help that brain recover.

Fortin: TPA is the only FDA-approved drug to treat the most common type of stroke. How does it work?

Gwynn: Tissue plasminogen activator, or TPA, is the best thing that we have at this point. It's a clot-busting drug. Under normal circumstances, if a person comes in within an hour or so of having the start of the symptoms, we can give it in the vein, and three months later, they will do better on average than if they didn't get it.

Fortin: Does TPA work for everyone?

Gwynn: It is not for everyone. People who are on blood thinners can't get it. People who had recent surgery or bleeding conditions can't have it.

Sanders: The time in which a patient can be available for TPA treatment after a stroke is a strict three hours. That's three hours from the moment the symptoms begin. The clock is ticking after stroke symptoms begin, and we have only three hours to get all the testing done and infuse all the medications.

Fortin: What are the risk factors of stroke?

Sanders: It's all about knowing your numbers, knowing your blood pressure, knowing your cholesterol, good and bad numbers, knowing your body mass index.

Gwynn: Some risk factors you can't do anything about such as age. African-Americans have higher incidence of stroke. Strokes tend to run in families. There are some things we can do. For example, if you have high blood pressure, you've got to treat it. If you smoke, you've got to stop.

Judy Fortin is a correspondent with CNN Medical News.

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Strokes are caused either a hemorrhage or a rupture of an artery or a vein in the brain, or a blockage.

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