Is it Safe to Travel on an Airplane After a Stroke?

A stroke may limit your ability to do some of the activities that you were used to doing prior to your stroke. Many stroke survivors and families of stroke survivors worry about the safety of flying as a passenger in an airplane after a stroke. Is the concern warranted? It certainly is a common question, so common in fact, that a number of medical research studies have looked at this very question.

Can Flying Cause a Stroke?

The incidence of a stroke during a commercial flight is actually quite low. Data shows that urgent medical ailments of all forms are relatively rare on airline flights.

The New England Journal of Medicine reports that a medical emergency is called approximately once per every 604 flights. The most common complaint is dizziness, which may raise the concern of a stroke or a TIA. However, the actual incidence of a stroke occurring in-flight is much lower than the number of episodes of passenger dizziness.

An Australian group of medical researchers reported that stroke related to air travel is such an uncommon event, that it constitutes less than one in a million strokes. stroke related to air travel includes strokes that occur on an airplane or after a flight, as a result of flying on an airplane.

As it tuns out, a history of a stroke, in itself, does not pose danger to the brain during an airline flight, and therefore, a past stroke is not a contraindication to flying on an airplane as a passenger.

Similarly, flying does not induce stroke in a person who has never had a stroke.

Is it Safe to Fly After a TIA?

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a mini stroke that resolves without permanent brain damage. A TIA is very similar to a stroke and it is a warning of stroke risk. Most of the health conditions discovered during a medical TIA evaluation do not limit air travel.

However, it is important to note that a few of the medical disorders that lead to a TIA may pose a very small risk on airplane flights. These disorders include patent foramen ovale,  paradoxical embolism or hypercoagulability. If you have any of these health conditions, you can fly on an airplane once you get the appropriate medical treatment.

When is it Unsafe to Fly?

Hypercoagulability is a condition that increases the tendency of blood clot formation. Several blood-clotting syndromes cause hypercoagulability. Some of these disorders are hereditary, and some are not.

Most strokes are caused by an interruption of blood flow due to a blood clot in the brain. Flying for long distances has been associated with an increase in blood clotting in those who are susceptible. If you have a hypercoagulable condition, it is best to talk to your doctor about airplane travel and whether you need to take any special precautions.

What if a Stroke or TIA Happens in-Flight?

While it is unusual for a stroke to arise during flight, it does occur.

When airline attendants are alerted of a passenger’s medical distress, they respond promptly as they are trained to do.

If you or a loved one experiences a stroke on an airplane, nearby passengers and trained professionals are likely to notice and call for emergency medical help fairly quickly. While it is uncommon, passenger flights have been diverted for medical emergencies, and emergency personnel can transport a passenger to a medical facility for diagnosis and treatment.

How Does a Stroke Impact Air Travel?

A stroke causes a wide range of neurological deficits. Some of the disabilities that result from a stroke such as impaired speech, vision changes and trouble walking may impair your ability to get around and communicate with others in the air travel setting.

Stroke survivors may suffer from deficits in spatial perception, which can increase the risk of getting lost in an airport. Communication problems after a stroke can lead to the misunderstanding of detailed flight information. Weakness and coordination problems can make it difficult to walk long distances through an airport. Consequently, for practical reasons, many stroke survivors should travel either with a companion or with professional assistance.

Sources

Humaidan H, Yassi N, Weir L, Davis SM, Meretoja A, Airplane Stroke Syndrome, Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, 2016 Jul;29:77-80

Yeung JT, Ma JK, Mak YF, Lam VS, Fatal cerebral air embolism related to an air flight, Hong Kong Medical Journal, August 2013

Peterson DC, Martin-Gill C, Guyette FX, Tobias AZ, McCarthy CE, Harrington ST, Delbridge TR, Yealy DM, Outcomes of medical emergencies on commercial airline flights, New England Journal of Medicine May 2013

Graf J, Stüben U, Pump S, In-flight medical emergencies, Deutsches Arzteblatt International, September 2012

Continue Reading