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What I Wish People Knew About Strokes in Children

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A stroke can happen among children of all ages.

The last time you heard a stroke story, it probably didn’t involve a healthy-seeming newborn or a fifth-grader who went to the nurse’s office with dizziness and a headache. It  wasn’t of a teenager who spent a “normal” day at school, only later in the evening to experience numbness down one side of their body. When you’ve never heard about stroke in children, it becomes easy to assume it must be very rare.

I work with families like these every day and hear their stories. I get to meet some of these children and see them overcoming challenges that most of us as adults, will never face. And on tough occasions I have the hardest conversations with a parent who has lost their child to stroke. It’s heartbreaking that awareness for children is too easily dismissed over the belief that it rarely happens.

When I shared about our own family’s journey with stroke and how our daughter survived at birth, I am often met with comments of  how rare that is or that children don’t have strokes.  I wish that were true. I know how many children need us to believe and to be educated. My hope is that we stop seeing stroke in children as rare and we start doing more about it. We start considering the possibility of stroke no matter a person’s age and we learn how to respond to it.

Please consider these facts:

  • Stroke occurs at the highest rate in infants younger than 1 month of age, effecting 1-3500 live births each year and nearly 1 per 20,000 children through age 18.
  • Stroke is as common as brain tumors in the pediatric population.
  • Stroke is one of the top 10 causes of death for children.
  • Studies have found that in the US, it can often take longer than 24 hours to diagnose stroke in children. Which is valuable time missed when every minute matters. Quick, proper treatment is critical to saving a child’s life and minimizing brain damage and lasting effects.

I couldn’t possibly make this information up even if I tried. But despite these published findings, pediatric stroke still falls off the radar. It’s not only parents who may not know the signs and symptoms of pediatric stroke – doctors can overlook them too. Too
often, children with stroke symptoms are misdiagnosed with more common conditions that mimic stroke, such as migraines, epilepsy or viral illnesses.  As long as the viewpoint continues to be that stroke in children is rare, the awareness is not heightened and a child in real need is overlooked.

Adults and children are not the same

Many of us know how to recognize when an adult is having a stroke, but the signs, symptoms and risk factors differ in children. There are over 100 different risk factors for pediatric stroke, none of them involving cholesterol levels or smoking. The reality that there are many more cases of stroke in adults does not dismiss the fact that the recognition of stroke in children is just as important and should be talked about. We have to get comfortable with talking about this.

I often get asked, “What can be done to keep pediatric stroke on the radar?” My simplest response is to get informed and share what you know. While it may not be your child, chances are, it will be someone’s child because the statistics are real. Moving away from “rare” to educated increases the chances of a child receiving a proper diagnosis and quicker treatment. Knowing the possibility of stroke in children saves lives. It’s as simple as that. Considering the possibility of stroke no matter a person’s age saves precious lives.

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Originally published: January 28, 2017
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