May 02, 2014 10:00 AM

Author: Jennifer Majersik, MD


“I told my story so athletes understand you can't ignore head injuries. If you're not sure you have one, then you do. Report it immediately.”

This sound advice is what greeted the thousands of people who follow Russell Allen (@RussellAllen50) on Twitter – many of them fans of the former linebacker for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

The tweet came after the 27-year-old Allen officially announced his retirement from the NFL. The culprit? An on-field stroke he suffered during a game in December 2013 against the Buffalo Bills.

Naturally, speculation began to spread as to how a stroke could affect somebody so young and active. Typically an active lifestyle such as Allen’s reduces stroke risk. However, every month in the U.S. approximately 260 people under 50 years of age suffer a stroke due to head or neck trauma. The trauma leads to a tear in one of the arteries in the neck, called an arterial dissection, and was the situation in Allen’s case.

According to his story, which was published on Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarter Back website, it all happened shortly before halftime in a game against the Buffalo Bills. Allen was in pursuit of a ball carrier when he ran into Bills center, Eric Wooden. The two collided face-to-face and Allen walked away as he describes it, “buzzed.”

“It was strange because it was so routine,” Allen says. “We hit, I got off the block, no big deal. I felt something flash – like they say when you get your bell rung. I didn’t lose consciousness. I walked back to the huddle and finished the drive.”

It wasn’t until the second half of that game that Allen began having double vision on the sideline. He even kept asking a teammate to see if his eye looked OK.

The story continues by stating that after the game Allen showered with a headache, got dressed with the same headache, drove home with his wife, struggled to watch Monday Night Football because of light sensitivity, and went to bed with the same headache. Perhaps the most telling sign of Allen’s condition was the fact that he had a hard time holding on to dishes and even broke several.

According to Allen, he simply didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation—a phenomenon that we as stroke physicians see regularly among stroke patients. His experience is a stark reminder that stroke has no boundaries and can literally affect anyone at any time, regardless of their age, gender or activity level.

Each year, approximately 800,000 people in the U.S. experience a stroke. It is the #1 cause of adult disability in the country and the third leading cause of death in Utah. In many cases, however, patients don’t immediately recognize the symptoms, or shrug the symptoms off thinking they will eventually subside.

May is Stroke Awareness Month, which is a perfect time to remind the public about FAST, an acronym created by the American Stroke Association to educate the public about the signs and symptoms of stroke:

F = FACE: Does one side of the face droop?

A = ARM: Is one arm weaker than the other?

S = SPEECH: Is the person unable to speak? Or, is their speech slurred or hard to understand?

T = TIME: Seconds count. When someone shows ANY of these symptoms, call 911 immediately!

At University of Utah Health Care we have a saying when it comes to stroke: “Time Lost is Brain Lost.” The meaning is simple – the longer stroke symptoms go on without medical care, the less likely someone is able to recover.

For Russell Allen, the result of his stroke was devastating – it cost him his career. But, he is also very fortunate more damage wasn’t done. For the hundreds of thousands of other people that will undoubtedly face a stroke this year, it is our hope that they, or anyone such as a friend, neighbor, or relative, will recognize the signs and get help FAST!

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