During a transient ischemic attack (TIA), also known as a ministroke, blood stops flowing to the brain for a short amount of time. Unlike a stroke, a TIA doesn’t kill brain cells or cause permanent disability. However, a TIA does cause symptoms that are similar to those of a stroke. A TIA is often a sign that a stroke may happen in the near future. In fact, 40 percent of people who have a TIA will have a stroke. This is why it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of a TIA and to take steps to reduce your risk.
The symptoms of a TIA are similar to those of a stroke. However, many people make the mistake of not seeking medical treatment since the symptoms are less severe and don’t last as long. While the symptoms of a stroke can last for more than 24 hours, the symptoms of a TIA typically go away after a few minutes or hours.
The common signs of a TIA include:
- sudden increase in blood pressure
- muscle weakness
- temporary numbness in an arm or leg
- sudden fatigue
- temporary memory loss
- body tingling
- personality changes
- difficulty speaking
- garbled speech
- poor balance
- changes in vision
Even though TIA symptoms go away fairly quickly, you should never ignore a TIA. A TIA is a warning sign that you’re at risk for having a stroke in the future. Always call 911 if you think you or a loved one has experienced a TIA. Getting prompt medical treatment will lower the risk of having a life-threatening or disabling stroke.
High blood pressure is the leading cause of TIAs and strokes. It’s important to control your blood pressure immediately to prevent a future TIA and stroke.
Other common causes include:
- blood clots
- narrow blood vessels in or around the brain
- high cholesterol
These conditions can block or reduce blood flow to your brain and trigger a TIA.
A TIA can occur due to clogged arteries, which create blood clots that block blood flow to the brain. Conditions that lead to clogged arteries or blood clots often cause TIAs. These conditions include atrial fibrillation, diabetes and sickle cell anemia. Your risk of having a TIA also increases if you:
- are over age 40
- are overweight
- have a family history of TIAs and strokes
- have a history of blood clots
- have a history of heart disease or other heart-related conditions
- have high cholesterol
- have a history of illegal drug use or heavy alcohol use
- have hypertension
People with certain characteristics are at a higher risk of having a stroke shortly after having a TIA. People who are more at risk include those who:
- are older than age 60
- have diabetes
- have uncontrolled high blood pressure
- have speech problems during a TIA
- have sudden weakness in one side of the body
- have TIA symptoms for more than an hour
If you’ve recently had a TIA, it’s important to talk to your doctor about steps you can take to lower your immediate risk of a stroke.
A TIA is a serious medical condition that requires immediate treatment. At the hospital, your doctor will run tests to confirm a TIA diagnosis. One of the most common diagnostic tests used is a carotid Doppler ultrasound. This is a safe, noninvasive test that uses high-frequency sound waves to create detailed images of the carotid arteries in your neck. Your carotid arteries carry blood from your heart to your brain. The pictures produced allow your doctor to check for narrowing of the carotid arteries. This may occur when there’s plaque, or blockages, in the arteries. When the arteries narrow, your risk of stroke increases.
MRI and CT scans are also often used to determine the underlying cause of a TIA. These imaging tests will be used to take detailed pictures of your brain and blood vessels.
Your doctor may order an echocardiogram if they suspect that a problem with your heart triggered the TIA. An echocardiogram is an ultrasound test that uses high-frequency sound waves to produce images of the heart. This allows your doctor to evaluate blood flow, heart valves, and heart shape and size.
It’s important to find the cause of the TIA so that you and your doctor can determine how to prevent future TIAs and strokes. Depending on the exact cause, your doctor might refer you to a specialist.
Treatment for a TIA will also help prevent a stroke from happening in the future. Common treatment plans include:
- medications to control high blood pressure
- medications to reduce high cholesterol
- medications to manage blood sugar levels
- aspirin or another blood thinner to help prevent blood clots
- surgery for clogged arteries in the neck
If your doctor prescribes medications, you’ll probably need to take them for an extended period of time to prevent a stroke. Regular follow-up appointments are also required so your doctor can monitor your condition.
A TIA generally doesn’t cause permanent brain damage. However, a TIA shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s often a sign of an underlying health problem that can lead to a future stroke. In fact, almost 50 percent of all strokes occur within the first few days after a TIA.
It’s important to stick with your treatment plan and to go to follow-up medical appointments to prevent a TIA. You should also make certain lifestyle changes, including:
- eating a heart-healthy diet that largely consists of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and foods that are low in sodium and cholesterol
- exercising more frequently
- limiting alcohol intake
- quitting smoking
You and your doctor can determine the best preventive steps for you based on your specific medical needs.