Dr. Page is an associate professor of clinical pharmacy and physical medicine at the University of Colorado, Denver, Schools of Pharmacy and Medicine.
Stroke has been defined as a "heterogeneous, neurologic syndrome characterized by gradual or rapid, nonconvulsive onset of neurologic deficits that fit a known vascular territory and that lasts for 24 hours or more."1 In other words, this disease can be characterized as a sudden impairment of normal body functioning caused by a disruption in the supply of blood to a specific area in the brain. This impairment may be transient, lasting several days or even permanently. In the United States, an individual experiences a stroke every 45 seconds. This statistic equates to approximately 700,000 Americans annually. About 500,000 of these are first-time or primary strokes, while the remaining are recurrent or secondary strokes. Each year, stroke claims approximately 155,000 lives, making it the third leading killer in the United States behind cardiovascular disease and cancer.2
Stroke can be classified into 2 types: (1) ischemic, which is caused by a blood clot within the brain, accounting for 75% to 80% of all strokes, and (2) hemorrhagic, which occurs when weakened cerebral arteries rupture, leading to subarachnoid or intracerebral bleeding.2 Ischemic stroke is caused by emboli, thrombus, or systemic hypoperfusion. Forty-five percent of ischemic strokes are due to embolic causes, which may be due to atrial fibrillation, patent foramen ovale, and low ejection fraction. Thrombus accounts for 30% of ischemic stroke and is associated with plaque buildup and atherosclerosis. The remaining 25% can be attributed to systemic hypoperfusion, hypercoagulable states, and cryptogenic etiologies.2
The signs and symptoms most commonly reported by patients suffering from an acute stroke are unilateral paralysis or weakness; difficulty with speech, gait, or coordination; and the "worst" headache of the patient's life.3 Other symptoms include facial droop, altered vision, sensory impairment, or thought process interference.4,5
As pharmacists, we have all been taught the "ABCs" of basic life support, (airway, breathing, and circulation). While these definitely apply to the emergent management of stroke, a more drug-focused set of ABCs are more specific for the pharmacist. Once in the emergency department, the focus of management should be to determine if indeed the patient is having a stroke, treating the stroke with alteplase (a tissue plasminogen activator), when applicable—the "A" in the ABCs—and identifying other conditions warranting immediate intervention. Table 1 summarizes appropriate candidates for alteplase therapy. Guidelines for administering alteplase are listed in Table 2. Blood pressure (BP), the "B" in our ABCs, plays a crucial role in ischemic stroke, as it can be a cause and/or complication poststroke. High BP can affect the patient outcome and also may delay alteplase administration. An excessively high BP also can contribute to hemorrhagic transformation following alteplase administration. Current guidelines recommend treating a systolic BP >220 mm Hg or a diastolic BP >120 mm Hg.6 Finally, the "C" in our mnemonic is controlling the patient's blood glucose concentrations (BGCs). In the heat of the moment, practitioners may forget to closely monitor the BGC; however, an elevated BGC needs to be recognized and treated immediately. Evidence indicates that persistent hyperglycemia (>140 mg/dL) during the first 24 hours poststroke is associated with poor clinical outcomes. Whereas this concentration may not seem elevated, recent stroke guidelines recommend that the BGC be maintained in the range of 80 to 140 mg/dL and that the use of insulin be initiated in these cases.6
By remembering and using these 3 simple ABCs, pharmacists within any health system can play a significant role in the emergent management of a patient with an acute ischemic stroke.
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