Scarier still is how often strokes in young adults are missed--some 14 percent of the time, according to researchers at Wayne State University. Patients from that study were misdiagnosed as, among other things, being drunk, having an inner ear infection, or suffering from benign vertigo.
"If a young person has symptoms of sudden unsteadiness, dizziness, or weakness, it's almost always considered a less dramatic event than stroke," says study coauthor Kumar Rajamani, M.D., an associate professor of neurology at Wayne State University School of Medicine.
The consequences of misdiagnosis are dire, because when having a stroke, every minute counts. "Timeliness of treatment is crucial," says Rajamani. After a stroke is diagnosed, patients generally have up to three hours (in some situations up to four and a half hours) to be injected with a clot-busting drug called tissue plasminogen activator, or TPA.
"But if the stroke is diagnosed too late, then the affected part of the brain is already dead, which is irreversible. Treatment with TPA at this late stage is futile and perhaps dangerous." And though young stroke patients can bounce back more quickly than older ones--their brains are able to compensate better for losses--they're not immune to the often-traumatic consequences.
Maureen Graves gave birth to her daughter, Simone, in September 2008. She was 38 at the time and single, living in Seattle. A nurse at the same hospital where she delivered, Maureen was soon flooded with guests and well-wishers. "She didn't sleep very much during those first couple of days," recalls her sister, Jeanne.
Before being released from the hospital two days later, Maureen started suffering from a severe headache. She was discharged, but the headache worsened. Maureen returned to the hospital's pediatric care center on Simone's third day for a routine checkup. As they were waiting for a doctor, Jeanne recalls, Maureen grew so fatigued that she lay down on the examining table to nap. "She started slurring her words. Her head was back. Her voice was barely audible," says Jeanne, who was there. On the way out of the hospital, Maureen went into the bathroom to vomit.
Yet the physician who was looking after Simone didn't seem alarmed. "I thought she was really tired. She had a headache. She hadn't eaten," says Jeanne. Yet, she admits, she was growing worried, especially as she helped her sister walk out of the clinic. "She could barely stand," says Jeanne. Just two hours later, at home, Maureen collapsed, vomited again, and was speaking gibberish.
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