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Stroke runs in my family. I have heard that there is a simple test that I can use to determine if someone is having a stroke. Is that true?

Only a health professional can determine if someone is having a stroke. However, you might be able to provide information that saves your loved one’s life.

A stroke usually occurs when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood to the brain. It can also happen if a blood vessel breaks. Stroke is a medical emergency and fast action is needed. The faster treatment begins the less risk of permanent damage.

The American Stroke Association encourages you to Think F-A-S-T. Look for the following signs and symptoms:

  • F – Facial Weakness (crooked smile, dropped mouth or eye)
  • A – Arm Weakness (Can the person raise both arms or does one arm drift downward when held out straight)
  • S – Speech Problems (speech is slurred, the person has difficulty speaking or following/understanding simple commands)
  • T – Time to Call 9-1-1 (especially if any of the following are also present: sudden loss of vision, loss of balance with dizziness, or sudden severe headache.)

F-A-S-T is based on Cincinnati Prehospital Stroke Scale (CPSS). This 3-item scale developed by the University of Cincinnati Medical Center was designed for use by paramedics and emergency medical personnel to speed their identification of possible strokes. There is no research to support the use of the scale by someone not trained in medicine. However, the American Stroke Association believes that F-A-S-T will make it easier for people to remember the warning signs of stroke and to call 9-1-1.

Unfortunately, most people with stroke symptoms don’t get to the hospital in time to receive the full range of possible treatments. If the stroke is the result of a clot, there is a drug that can break up the clot. However, the drug must be given within three hours of the start of symptoms.  Health providers will need time to determine the cause of the stroke before treatment can begin. Getting to the hospital quickly is important.  

As a concerned family member or friend, you play an important role in helping a stroke victim get needed care. People who are alone when symptoms occur are more likely to delay going to the emergency room. They may not recognize the signs of a stroke, they can’t believe this is happening to them, the stroke may be interfering with their ability to act, or they are afraid of feeling “stupid” if they are wrong. People who are with others when they suffer a stroke frequently get care more quickly. As a family member or friend, here are some specific things you can do.

  • Become familiar with stroke warning signs. Think F-A-S-T.
  • Call 9-1-1 or your local Emergency Medical Service if even only one warning sign is present. Let the health professionals determine if it is a stroke or not.  
  • When you call 9-1-1 tell the dispatcher what warning signs are present and when the symptoms first occurred. If you don’t know when the symptoms first began, the dispatcher needs to know that as well. The information you provide can make a difference in the kind of treatment that can be safely provided.        
  • Call 9-1-1 or EMS rather than drive your family member or friend to the hospital. The dispatcher can help you assess the symptoms and tell you which hospital in your area is best equipped to treat strokes. The dispatcher can also let the hospital know that you are coming. If you are quite a distance from the hospital, you may work out a plan with the dispatcher to meet an ambulance in route to the hospital in order to get your family member there as quickly as possible. Getting treatment quickly is the goal.

Think F-A-S-T. Time lost is brain lost. If you suspect someone is having a stroke, call 9-1-1 or EMS. A stroke is a medical emergency.

This information is being provided for educational purposes. Your health care provider can make recommendations specific to your situation. Follow your health care provider’s advice.

Kothari RU, Pancioli A, Liu T, Brott T, Broderick J. “Cincinnati Prehospital Stroke Scale: reproducibility and validity.” Ann Emerg Med 1999 Apr;33(4):373-8.

Liferidge AT, Brice JH, Overby BA, Everson KR. (2004) Ability of laypersons to use the Cincinnati Prehospital Stroke Scale. Prehospital Emergency Care, Oct-Dec; 8 (4)384-7.

American Stroke Association. What is Stroke? (Learn about Stroke)

National Stroke Association. Reducing Risk and Recognizing Symptoms Fact Sheet




Gail Carlson, MPH Ph.D., Continuing Medical Education, School of Medicine, University of Missouri-Columbia

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Last update: Wednesday, November 26, 2008




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