A transient ischemic attack is called a mini-stroke. But what is a transient ischemic attack exactly — an actual stroke? The answer can be life-saving.
Doctors and scientists can refer to a transient ischemic attack (TIA) in different ways. Most often, a transient ischemic attack is called a mini-stroke or, occasionally, a warning stroke. Sometimes, a TIA is discussed as a prodrome for a stroke — meaning it is an episode of neurologic dysfunction that warns a full-blown stroke is likely on the horizon.
So, what is a transient ischemic attack, exactly? Is it truly a stroke or something that is stroke-like?
The answer to those questions involves understanding the causes of a TIA, how a transient ischemic attack is related to “full-blown” strokes, and how it differs.
How full-blown strokes and TIAs are alike and different
Any kind of stroke is caused by a problem that blocks or disrupts the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain. Whether a TIA or full-blown stroke, the most common cause is a blood clot resulting in ischemia (a blockage of blood flow), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) explains.
Atherosclerosis, the build-up of fatty plaque deposits in arteries, can play a role, too. Arteries narrowed by plaque make it more likely a blood clot will become stuck, disrupting blood supply to the brain; by slowing blood through arteries, plaque can also contribute to clot development.
Symptoms of a transient ischemic attack are usually similar or identical to many symptoms of a “regular” stroke — including numbness or weakness in the face, leg, or arm on one side of the body, dizziness, difficulty walking, difficulty speaking or understanding others talking, vision problems in one or both eyes, and loss of balance and coordination, the NINDS states.
However, although a stroke and transient ischemic attack may start off the same way physiologically, there’s a big difference.
If you have a transient ischemic attack, you experience symptoms for a short time, until your body resolves the blockage on its own. For example, the clot can move “downstream,” or it may dissolve on it its own, thanks to natural clot dissolvers in the blood (anticoagulants), the American Stroke Association points out. Then blood begins to flow to the brain, preventing the lasting brain damage seen in full-blown strokes.
TIAs are serious business
As the name of the condition indicates, a TIA is transient. It doesn’t last long — often just five minutes to an hour, although it may sometimes last longer. But because they are typically brief, that doesn’t mean a TIA is harmless and you can ignore it.
Consider this: What is a transient ischemic attack warning you about your health? The answer is simple but potentially life-changing. Without medical intervention, a full-blown stroke could be in your immediate future and cause permanent disability and even death,
Approximately 15 percent of all strokes are heralded by a TIA, which often occurs days to weeks before a major stroke. In fact, up to 40 percent of people who suffer severe strokes have transient ischemic attacks before a major stroke, according to the American Stroke Association
Get immediate medical help for a TIA
If you experience any possible symptoms of a transient ischemic attack, get medical help immediately by calling 911 or have someone drive you to a nearby ER — even if symptoms quickly disappear.
To find the cause of a TIA, medical personnel will perform a variety of blood and imagining tests. The carotid artery, which leads from your heart to your brain, may be checked for signs of blockages or stiffening, the American Stroke Association explains.
A doctor will also take a medical history, looking for risks of cardiovascular disease (which elevate stroke risk) and determine medication to prevent blood clots. A procedure to remove atherosclerotic plaques from the carotid artery is needed in some cases to prevent future strokes.
Believe it or not, being diagnosed with a transient ischemic attack can actually be good news.
That’s because a TIA can serve as an important wake-up call that you need lifestyle changes, such as losing weight if needed and getting high blood pressure under control, and possible anticoagulant therapy to prevent a serious and potentially life-threatening stroke in your future.
March 16, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN