This all-too-common decision can have life-threatening consequences.
Stroke symptoms can be vague: feeling weak, numb, having blurry vision. Someone having a stroke might not feel quite right, but they might not necessarily suspect or know they’re having a stroke. It’s important to recognize these signs as potential stroke symptoms, and take them seriously by calling 911—*not* going to the doctor or hospital on your own to have them checked out.
The Dangers of Driving During a Stroke
It doesn’t matter how severe (or not severe) your potential stroke symptoms are: Driving is considered off-limits. Here’s why:
“Stroke can worsen over time,” says Carolyn Brockington, MD, a neurologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital. “If you start off with mild symptoms, there’s no way of knowing whether they’re going to get more severe.”
Even with mild stroke symptoms, your driving may be impaired. Common stroke symptoms include lack of coordination, confusion, weakness in the arms or legs, and trouble seeing in one or both eyes, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Each of those can impact the ability to drive safely, similar to driving while intoxicated.
Getting into a car accident will not only put you at risk for further injury, but it will postpone the start of treatment for your stroke. When it comes to avoid brain damage from stroke, every minute counts. Starting treatment as soon as possible after the onset of stroke symptoms can help prevent disability caused by stroke, according to NINDS.
That doesn’t mean the passenger seat is the answer, either. Don’t have a friend or bystander (or even an Uber driver) take you to the ER.
What to Do if You’re Having a Stroke
“You really need to call 911 in order to be taken to the emergency room that’s closest to you,” says Dr. Brockington.
Ambulances save you time in more ways than one. They literally get through traffic faster, get treatment for stroke started sooner, and can ensure doctors who specifically treat stroke are ready for your arrival to the hospital, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In the ambulance, EMS professionals can begin your treatment by monitoring your vitals, noting your symptoms, and taking down your medical history—saving you precious time once you reach the hospital.
“When people have strokes, many times their blood pressure is very high,” says Dr. Brockington. EMS professionals can give medicine to lower BP and make sure you’re getting enough oxygen.
EMS professionals can also help figure out what type of stroke you’re having, says Dr. Brockington, which is important to know for treatment. They can notify the ER so doctors are prepared with equipment and medication to begin treatment ASAP.
Unfortunately, while the risks of driving yourself to the hospital during a stroke are well documented, one in three stroke patients do not call an ambulance, according to the CDC.
“We know that a stroke occurs from not enough blood getting to the brain in a period of time,” says Dr. Brockington. “We want to try to limit the degree of damage to the brain. The people who come in right away … and are treated faster, usually do better in terms of recovery.”
“The best advice I can give someone who thinks they might be having a stroke is to call 9-1-1,” says Dr. Brockington. “Time is brain. The longer they wait, the more likely it is that the brain may be irreversibly damaged.”
Know stroke brochure. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (Accessed on May 8, 2018 at https://stroke.nih.gov/materials/actintime.htm.)
Stroke. Washington, DC: U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on May 8, 2018 at https://medlineplus.gov/stroke.html.)
Think it’s a stroke? 4 reasons it’s better to call 9-1-1 than drive yourself to the hospital. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017. (Accessed on May 8, 2018 at https://blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2017/05/think-its-a-stroke-4-reasons-its-better-to-call-9-1-1-than-drive-yourself-to-the-hospital/.)