A transient ischemic attack serves as a warning sign for a stroke and further health complications, and should be taken very seriously. Statistics show that within 90 days of having a transient ischemic attack, more than 20 percent of people will have a more serious stroke, and sadly, strokes are the third leading cause of death and the leading cause of adult disability in the United States.
A transient ischemic attack, or TIA for short, is also known as a "mini-stroke.” While the name gives the impression that it isn't as serious as a normal stroke, this doesn't mean that it doesn’t pose a risk for long term problems.
A TIA is the sudden manifestation of neurological deficits caused by the loss of blood flow to the brain due to an obstruction in the blood vessel. This occurs without the localized death of tissue caused be a lack of oxygen rich blood that is seen in other types of strokes, called infarction. A TIA is a harbinger of a more serious stroke unless steps are taken to reduce a person's risk and treat any blockages that he may already have.
All strokes are caused by severely reduced blood flow to the brain. Blood flow can be reduced in a few different ways:
- Blood clots in the vessel
- Vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels)
- An aneurism in the brain
In the case of a TIA, the blockage will usually resolve itself within 24 hours, so the cause is not likely to be an aneurism, which typically requires medical intervention. The most common cause of a TIA is a blockage of the blood vessels in the brain.
There are several different symptoms associated with strokes. In the case of a transient ischemic attack, people may not notice any symptoms because the transient ischemic attack resolves itself so quickly. However, anyone who experiences the following symptoms should seek immediate medical help because there is no way to tell if these symptoms are the sign of a TIA or a massive, life-threatening stroke. These symptoms include:
- Slurred speech
- Blindness or double vision
- Weakness, numbness or paralysis, typically on one side of the body
- Dizziness or loss of balance
- Loss of consciousness
- Memory problems
- Migraine headache
Women may also experience:
- Sudden pain in the chest, leg, arm or face
- Pounding or racing heart
- Shortness of breath
While most people won't experience all of these symptoms, those who experience more than one should seek medical attention immediately. In the case of a transient ischemic attack, seeking medical attention will help to identify the problem before it resolves itself and allow the person to possibly prevent a more serious condition. So even though a TIA is not deadly, like other types of strokes, it is still very serious.
Treatment for TIA is usually fairly simple. A brief hospital stay is typically involved so that a specialist can run tests to determine where the blockage is located. These tests usually are non-invasive and include CT scans, MRIs, echocardiograms, and ultrasounds.
While in the hospital, intravenous medications to help thin the blood and keep it from clotting can be used to help break up any clots that are causing problems. It's important to keep in mind that a transient ischemic attack acts as a warning that something larger could be coming, so even if the blockage that has caused the initial TIA has resolved itself, a doctor may still need to prescribe treatment to prevent a more serious stroke.
When it comes to any type of stroke, prevention is the best treatment. While not all of the factors that contribute to strokes can be simply solved by altering one's lifestyle, those changes can go a long way toward helping prevent a stroke in the future. Here are some suggestions that may help:
- Have blood pressure checked at least once a year. Those with high blood pressure are more likely to have a TIA or other type of stroke.
- Get tested for diabetes. Those with diabetes will typically develop a problem called hyperlipidemia, or elevated levels of the "bad" type of cholesterol, known as LDL cholesterol.
- Have cholesterol checked yearly. Because most TIAs and strokes are caused by blockages in blood vessels and elevated cholesterol plays a significant role in the development of these blockages, it's a no-brainer that keeping cholesterol at a healthy level will significantly reduce the chances of developing the blockages that case TIA.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle. This includes eating a healthy diet and exercising most days of the week. There are many substances in the types of food most people eat that can both raise cholesterol and help lower it. Those who need help planning their diet should speak to their doctor or see a nutritionist to learn about making healthy food choices.
- Limit alcohol intake to one drink per day. This breaks down to one 12 ounce beer, one 5 ounce glass of wine or one 1.5 ounce shot of distilled alcohol.
- Find healthy ways to deal with stress. Increased stress levels can cause the body to store fat, increasing a person's risk of stroke.
Individuals who are at an increased risk of having a stroke should talk to their doctor about a daily aspirin regimen. Aspirin is an effective blood thinner and not much is needed to do the job. However, it can have some interactions with other medications and it isn't right for everyone so it should be discussed with a doctor.
Women should also speak with their doctor if they are on birth control. The hormones in birth control products can cause strokes in some women, particularly those who:
- Are over age 35
- Have high blood pressure
- Have high cholesterol
While a transient ischemic attack may not sound as serious as a normal stroke, it is definitely a sign that it's time to make some lifestyle changes. Effective treatment and healthy habits go a long way toward making sure that a TIA doesn't become the harbinger of something catastrophic and deadly.