“TIA” stands for transient ischemic attack. Also known as a “mini-stroke,” a TIA signals an interruption of blood flow to a part of the brain. The underlying mechanism is the same for a TIA and an ischemic stroke. A blood clot blocks blood flow in an artery that supplies the brain. Symptoms can include vision problems, trouble speaking, sudden weakness, numbness or headache.
In a TIA, the blood clot breaks up on its own, usually over a few minutes. The blockage resolves and so do symptoms. The symptoms can last up to 24 hours.
In a stroke, the blood clot remains long enough to cause permanent brain damage and disability.
While there is no permanent brain damage from a TIA, consider it a warning of an impending stroke. About one third of people who have a TIA go on to have a stroke within a year.
What are the signs of a TIA?
The signs of a TIA are the same as stroke. You can’t tell the difference between a TIA and a stroke. Nor can you tell if a blood clot is temporary or more serious. It’s critical to note the time symptoms began and call 9-1-1 right away if you have:
Sudden weakness or numbness of the face, arm or leg
Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
Sudden confusion, difficulty speaking or trouble understanding speech
Sudden severe headache with no known cause
Sudden dizziness or unsteadiness
Sudden loss of balance or trouble with walking or coordination
Loss of consciousness
Seizure in a person who does not have epilepsy
How is a TIA treated?
In a TIA, the blood clot dissolves on its own, but there is no way of knowing if this will happen. That is why it is important to call 9-1-1 right away at the first sign of any symptoms.
Once you have been diagnosed with a TIA, the goal of further treatment is to prevent a stroke. Your doctor will look for possible risk factors for stroke, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure or atrial fibrillation. (Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rhythm that can raise the risk for blood clots and stroke.) Treatment of these risk factors is an important step to prevent stroke.
To prevent stroke, your doctor may start you on medications to:
Control blood pressure
Prevent blood clots (such as aspirin or anticoagulants)
Surgery or angioplasty
There are two major arteries (called carotid arteries) in your neck that supply the brain with blood flow. If one or both of these arteries have significant plaque buildup (made of cholesterol and other substances), blood flow to the brain may be reduced. This puts you at high risk of a blood clot forming there or traveling from the heart and getting stuck there.
Angioplasty and stent placement may be advised to open up the carotid artery and help prevent stroke. Surgery to remove the plaque may be needed. This surgery is called carotid endarterectomy.
Finally, a large part of preventing stroke is adopting healthy lifestyle habits:
Follow a heart-healthy (low-fat and cholesterol) diet.
If you smoke, quit
Exercise every day or on most days of the week
Reach and maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise
Always check with your doctor before you start or increase your exercise.