Often called “mini-strokes,” transient ischemic attacks (TIA) should be taken very seriously and viewed as emergencies. Even though they may not last long, a TIA is a strong indicator that a major stroke is on the way. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that without treatment, ten- to fifteen-percent of people who have mini-strokes will have a major stroke within three months. A larger percentage, over one third of people who experience TIA, will have a stroke within one year if no help is sought. Around 140,000 people die from strokes each year making stroke the fifth most common cause of death in the United States, according to the American Heart Association.
The difference between strokes and mini-strokes
Major strokes are usually classified as ischemic or hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes, responsible for 87% of stroke occurrences, are caused when arteries delivering blood to the brain are blocked. Blood clots are the most common cause for this blockage. Hemorrhagic strokes are the result of a rupture of an artery in the brain. This creates pressure on the brain cells because of leaked blood. Both ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes can be fatal or life-altering, causing permanent brain injury.
A transient ischemic attack is a shorter-term event that causes no immediate damage. In most cases, arteries are blocked by blood clots for a limited time causing no permanent brain injury. With TIA, the blockage within the artery is dissolved by the body’s natural anticoagulants and clots don’t remain formed long enough to damage the brain. Healthy blood flow is restored quickly.
Symptoms and causes of TIA
Although a mini-stroke doesn’t last as long as a stroke, when they begin, the symptoms of both are the same. Sudden numbness in the face, arms or legs and difficulty in speaking all signal a stroke or mini-stroke. Dizziness, an unsteady gait, sudden major headaches or trouble with vision are also symptoms. Not understanding others or confusion could also point to stroke or TIA.
Just as mini-strokes and ischemic strokes have identical beginning symptoms and a TIA often forewarns the possibility of a major stroke, the causes of both are similar as well. Physical conditions including high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity contribute to the probability of stroke. Additionally, carotid artery disease, high cholesterol and atrial fibrillation (AFib) increase the possibility of stroke. Lifestyle choices such as smoking, lack of exercise and a poor diet also multiply the risk.
Managing and treating TIA
Among the dangers of mini-strokes is the fact that because the symptoms go away soon, medical attention may be overlooked. If any of them occur, it is imperative that emergency help is sought immediately and treatment and management begin. Because the causes of TIA include other health conditions, a physician or cardiologist may begin by treating them.
Medications to help lower cholesterol or blood pressure levels may be prescribed, as well as a diet or exercise program that can help manage these conditions. Stopping smoking and reducing alcohol intake will also help manage risk.
If the TIA was caused by a block in the carotid artery that supplies blood to the brain, surgery may be required. The minimally invasive angioplasty and stenting utilizes a catheter to allow the blood vessel to be widened and a stent installed to keep it open.
A carotid endarterectomy involves an incision on the affected side of the neck and the removal of blocking plaque from the carotid artery’s inner lining. Material may be sewn in place to make up for the lack of healthy artery when sewn back together. This restores blood flow to the brain.
To learn more about transient ischemic attacks, management and treatment of TIA, log on to vascularhealthclinics.org.