Transient ischemic attacks (TIA) are more commonly known as mini strokes, but don't let the nickname fool you. While the symptoms of a TIA subside within five minutes, heed their occurrence as a warning to seek emergency care at once. Find out what you need to know about a TIA so that you can act quickly if you or a loved one experiences the sudden onset of its symptoms.
What Is a TIA?
An ischemic stroke, which you can think of as a major stroke, occurs when the blood flow to the brain is blocked, most commonly by a blood clot, depriving the brain's cells of oxygen. Until that blockage is cleared, those brain cells start to die off. Without treatment, the victim will die. Even with treatment, an ischemic stroke often leaves the survivor with debilitation that requires months to years of physical, speech and occupational therapies. In the case of a TIA, the blockage of blood to the brain is transient, or fleeting, because the blood clot manages to dislodge on its own. Unlike a major stroke, a TIA does not result in damage to the brain. The blockage typically resolves within five minutes, and the symptoms usually subside over the next hour. At the onset of either an ischemic stroke or a TIA, however, the presenting symptoms are identical, making it impossible for you to differentiate which health crisis is actually taking place.
How Can You Recognize a TIA?
The signs of a TIA can vary, depending on which part of the brain is being affected by the disruption of blood flow. If you are having a TIA, you may experience the sudden onset of any of the following signs and symptoms:
- Lack of coordination, numbness or muscle weakness on one side of the body
- Dizziness or feeling faint
- Slurred speech or difficulty speaking
- Blurred vision or loss of vision in one or both eyes
- Severe headache
If you are with someone who complains of or exhibits any of the aforementioned symptoms, remember the acronym F.A.S.T., which stands for face, arms, speech and time, and perform the following tasks at once:
- Face – instruct the individual to smile, and observe if he or she can do so without one side of the face drooping.
- Arms – instruct the individual to raise both arms, and observe if either arm cannot be held upward.
- Speech – instruct the individual to repeat a simple sentence back to you, and observe if he or she can do so accurately and without slurring any words.
- Time – do not waste any time at all, and call 9-1-1 immediately if the individual fails any one of the three simple tasks.
If the individual's symptoms clear up quickly and he or she can successfully perform all three tasks, the situation becomes only slightly less urgent. He or she may appear to be feeling better rapidly and insist on being fine, but a TIA is neither normal nor fine. If you are the one who experiences the symptoms, you may feel that you can simply take the rest of your day to rest and assume that you can return to your normal activities the next day. Do not give in to the temptation to avoid the hospital. Doing so could cost you your life. Everyone who experiences the symptoms of TIA must get to the emergency room as soon as possible.
Why Is a TIA An Emergency?
A TIA is brief because the blood clot dislodged on its own, and blood resumed its flow to the brain. However, there is no telling when the clot will dissolve, which means that it is still a lurking threat. While it is tempting to shrug off a TIA because you feel fine after the symptoms have passed, the incident is a warning. According to the American Stroke Association, most individuals who suffer major strokes do not get the courtesy of this warning, and a third of individuals who experience a TIA and fail to pursue emergency treatment will subsequently have a major stroke within the year that follows. If you still feel that you can put off seeking medical treatment for a more convenient time several weeks after the TIA, consider that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 15 percent of those who experience a TIA go on to have a major stroke within the three months that follow. Seeking emergency medical care should be your top priority to reduce your risk of sustaining a major stroke in your near future.
How Is a TIA Treated?
When you enter the emergency room to address a TIA, imaging tests will likely be performed to confirm the location and cause of the blockage. The results of these tests will also assess your risk of a future stroke. The first goal of treatment for a TIA will be to resolve the cause of the TIA, which may include medications to dissolve and prevent blood clots or procedures to widen and clear out a narrowed carotid artery. The second goal will be to institute preventative measures to reduce your risk of having a stroke in the future. Some of these measures may include:
- Managing high blood pressure, if necessary
- Managing high cholesterol, if necessary
- Reducing your risk for diabetes or, if you have diabetes, managing it
- Maintaining a healthy body weight, or losing weight if you are overweight or obese
- Quitting smoking
- Engaging in an exercise routine and staying physically active
You may also be required to take long-term aspirin therapy or a blood-thinning medication to prevent blood clot formation.
While nobody is considered lucky to have a stroke, consider yourself lucky if you experience a TIA. Think of it not as an inconvenient incident, but as a warning to address your health and as a gift of a second chance to avoid a major stroke. For more information or assistance, contact local urgent care.