A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is an episode of stroke-like symptoms. It usually lasts less than one hour. A TIA is sometimes called a mini stroke.
During a TIA, circulation to a part of the brain is interrupted briefly, and then restored. This interruption can be caused by:
- A narrowing of a brain artery because of atherosclerosis.
A small floating blood clot. This clot enters the bloodstream from somewhere else in the body, often the heart. It temporarily blocks a brain artery
Symptoms of a TIA are the same as those of stroke. However, TIA symptoms usually last for less than one to two hours. Most TIAs actually last only five to 20 minutes.
- Symptoms of a TIA can include:
- Dizziness or confusion
- Weakness or paralysis on one side of the body
- Sudden, severe numbness in any part of the body
- Visual disturbance, including sudden loss of vision
- Difficulty walking, including staggering or veering
- Coordination problems in the arms and hands
- Slurred speech or inability to speak
Your doctor will ask about:
- Your current symptoms
- Your medical history, including conditions that increase your risk of stroke, such as:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Certain types of heart disease
Your doctor will examine you. He or she may pay special attention to the circulation in your neck. This is where major arteries supplying the brain are located. While examining your neck, the doctor will listen with a stethoscope for turbulent sounds. These sounds indicate that blood is flowing through narrowed arteries.
Blood tests will be done. Your doctor will also do a test called an electrocardiogram (EKG). An EKG measures the electrical activity of your heart.
Your doctor may order a computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of your brain. These will help to help pinpoint the cause of a TIA.
To evaluate flow through blood vessels, your doctor may do other tests. These include Doppler ultrasound, magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) or X-ray angiography.
If your doctor suspects that floating blood clots are coming from your heart, special heart tests may be necessary.
The onset of any symptoms suggestive of a stroke or TIA requires immediate medical attention.
You can expect a TIA to last less than one to two hours. If symptoms are not improving quickly within one hour from onset, a stroke is likely to occur without emergent therapy.
You can help to prevent TIAs by:
- Not smoking
- Keeping blood pressure within the normal range
- You may need medications to bring down your blood pressure.
- Lowering your LDL cholesterol level
- For high LDL cholesterol that doesn't respond to diet, statin drugs offer the most protection against TIA and stroke.
- Taking a low dose of aspirin if your doctor determines the benefits outweigh the risks for you
- Exercising regularly
- Eating a healthy diet that is:
- Rich in fruits and vegetables
- Low in saturated fats and cholesterol
When treating TIAs, the ultimate goal is to prevent a full-fledged stroke.
Most TIAs are treated with antiplatelet medications. The choices include:
- Aspirin only
- Aspirin combined with dipyridamole (Aggrenox)
- Clopidogrel (Plavix)
If you have significant narrowing of part of the carotid artery in the neck, surgery may be done to correct the problem. This will help prevent future TIAs and stroke. The procedure is called carotid endarterectomy or carotid artery stenting.
Some TIAs are related to small free floating blood clots in the heart. These clots can occur in people with atrial fibrillation or advanced heart failure. In this situation, your doctor may choose anticoagulation (anti-clotting) medications such as heparin, warfarin or one of the newer oral anticoagulant drugs.
When To Call a Professional
Call your doctor immediately whenever anyone has symptoms of stroke. Call even if these symptoms last only a few minutes. TIAs can be a warning sign that a stroke is about to happen. They require prompt attention.
Without treatment, having a history of one or more TIAs significantly increases your risk of stroke compared with someone who has never had a TIA.