Video: Early diagnosis of stroke crucial

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/19/2006 8:11:19 PM ET 2006-01-20T01:11:19

Stroke is an assault within the brain that kills 160,000 Americans a year and is the major cause of disability.

“Many patients will tell us,” says Dr. Anthony Furlan of the Cleveland Clinic, “that they'd rather die than be disabled, permanently paralyzed, unable to walk — robbed of their ability to think or talk.”

Until recently, doctors could only stand by and watch a stroke unfold.

“It was called a do-nothing disease,” Furlan says.

But now — though given rarely — there are treatments.

Judith Hunt, a lawyer, suddenly noticed one morning last November that her right side seemed paralyzed.

“My entire future flashed before me and I was wondering to what extent I would be able to practice law again,” Hunt remembers.

Hunt was suffering the most common type of stroke — caused by a clot that cuts off blood to part of the brain. She called 9-1-1 and, in the emergency room, got an intravenous injection of tPA, a drug that dissolves clots.

“Today, I'm fine!” Hunt declares.

That is how it should happen. But only two percent of stroke victims in the United States get treatment. A major reason is that the medication must be given within three hours of the onset of symptoms.

What are the symptoms?

But even if patients make it to the emergency room in time, there is another problem. The clot-dissolving medication can set off bleeding in the brain — the other type of stroke. So, many doctors are afraid to use it. That's why there is an enormous effort to find far better treatments for the future.

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