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Am Fam Physician. 2003;68(12):2335-2340

See article on page 2379.

Stroke is a significant medical problem that affects more than 700,000 Americans annually.1 In the United States, it is the third leading cause of death, the major cause of disability, and the primary reason for nursing home admissions.1,2 Because of the aging of the U.S. population and the increasing incidence of chronic illnesses, the rate of stroke and its associated costs will continue to escalate. Unfortunately, public awareness of the warning signs of stroke and its early treatment remain limited.3,4

In this issue of American Family Physician, Ezekowitz and associates5 review strategies that have been shown to be effective in stroke prevention. It is clear that preventive measures and early interventions can reduce the morbidity, mortality, and cost of stroke. Thus, physicians need to recognize which patients are at risk for stroke and design systematic approaches to these patients.6 In addition, medical education needs to focus on stroke prevention and the care of patients who experience a stroke.7

Primary prevention of stroke includes the treatment of hypertension and hyperlipidemia, the use of angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors and glucose control in patients with diabetes, the use of warfarin (Coumadin) in patients with atrial fibrillation, and smoking cessation. Weight reduction in obese patients and increased physical activity also should be encouraged. Low-dose aspirin has not been shown to be effective in preventing a first stroke and, in fact, can increase the risk of hemorrhagic stroke.8 Secondary prevention of stroke may include the use of antiplatelet agents, aspirin, warfarin, statins (3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A reductase inhibitors), and carotid surgery. Treatment of chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes should follow accepted evidence-based guidelines.9,10

The media (particularly television) and community-based education in settings such as schools and churches can help to increase public awareness of the warning signs and early treatment of stroke.11,12 In addition, medical office personnel must be able to provide proper advice when a patient or family member calls to report signs suggestive of stroke. If there is a possibility that a patient could be having a stroke, “9-1-1” should be called immediately. Delay in treatment because the signs of stroke were not recognized results in a poorer outcome.13 The patient with a possible stroke must be a top priority and should be transported to an appropriate facility by an emergency medical service, rather than by private car.14

Hospital emergency departments should develop triage systems to care for patients who have signs consistent with stroke.14 Triage should be similar to that in patients with chest pain who may have cardiac disease. Fever, blood glucose levels, and blood pressure must be managed, and consideration should be given to immediate administration of aspirin.

Good evidence shows that patients with an ischemic stroke who meet specific criteria benefit from the administration of tissue-type plasminogen activator (tPA) if the tPA is given within three hours of the onset of symptoms.14 Strict adherence to the protocol for tPA administration increases efficacy and safety.15 Hospitals that provide emergency stroke care should have a protocol in place for tPA administration or be prepared to transfer patients to a better equipped facility.

Not all hospitals have 24-hour radiology, laboratory, and neurosurgery services. Hence, the staff and administrators of each hospital must determine the level of stroke care their institution can provide. The community then must determine the best use of local resources to accommodate its residents.16

As family physicians, we can do much to increase awareness of stroke, promote its prevention, and provide education about its treatment. We can implement office systems to enhance prevention, and we can establish awareness campaigns in our offices, in emergency responders, in hospitals, and within our communities. By helping to create these systems, family physicians can work with their communities to decrease the morbidity, mortality, and cost of this devastating illness.

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