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Transient ischemic attack (TIA)

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What is a TIA stroke?

A transient ischemic attack (TIA), which is also known as a mini stroke, is a momentary neurological dysfunction which is a result of a disruption of the blood supply to the brain. Unlike a stroke, the symptoms are only short-term and there are no lasting effects.

The exact number of TIA cases is not known as many people do not report it to their doctor due to their symptoms subsiding or the importance not being recognised. However, it can be estimated that about 35 in 100,000 people experience a mini stroke each year in the UK.

Causes of a TIA stroke

Most incidences of a TIA is due to a small blood clot which blocks an artery in the brain. This means that the blood cannot flow freely through it and results in the brain being starved of oxygen for a few minutes.

The interruption to the blood flow means that the brain is unable to complete a number of everyday functions correctly. A TIA does not result in the same damage as a stroke because the blood clot quickly breaks up and nearby vessels are able to compensate.

There are also some other reasons behind a TIA, but these are very uncommon. Conditions such as issues with blood clotting, bleeds into the brain or blood disorders have the potential to cause a mini stroke.

There are certain things that could increase the risk of experiencing a transient ischemic attack:

  • Having a high level of cholesterol
  • Atrial fibrillation (or other irregular heartbeat conditions)
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity or being overweight
  • Regular or excessive alcohol intake

How a blood clot forms

The common site for a small blood clot to form is on the wall of arteries in the neck – often the carotid and vertebral which take blood to the brain. The blood clot then breaks off and is carried by the bloodstream until it becomes stuck in a smaller artery in the brain.

This blood clot usually breaks up soon after it becomes stuck, which means that there is no lasting damage to the brain during a TIA.

Is a TIA serious?

By itself, a transient ischemic attack leaves no lasting damage to the brain, and the symptoms soon subside. However, a TIA gives the indication that you are prone to forming blood clots in your blood vessels or heart which can affect you later in life.

If you have experienced a mini stroke, you are at a higher risk of developing a larger blood clot, which may cause a stroke or heart attack in the future.

A TIA has the same symptoms that are usually associated with a stroke, including partial paralysis or weakness on one side of the body. These occur on the opposite side of the body to the affected hemisphere of the brain (right hemisphere damage will result in left-sided weakness).

It may also cause a sudden loss of vision, confusion or aphasia which is difficulty communicating or understanding language. These usually peak in less than a minute and often completely go within an hour.

Treatment after a mini stroke

The first month following a TIA is the most crucial, which is why treatment is advised as soon as possible.

A scoring system is often used to evaluate the risk of stroke after having a TIA. It takes into account different things like age, blood pressure and pre-existing conditions. People who receive a high score in this test, or have experienced more than one transient ischemic attack, are at the highest risk of going on to experience a stroke.

The main aim of treating a TIA is reducing the chances and risk of you having a stroke, heart attack or any further transient ischemic attacks. Medication may be introduced to lessen the chance of blood clots forming, or they may offer advice on simple lifestyle changes to make.

Reducing the risk of a stroke

Alone, a TIA is not life-threatening but can be a sign that a stroke may follow. However, there are a few lifestyle changes you can make in order to lower your rick of either a TIA or a stroke in the future, such as:

  • Limiting your alcohol consumption
  • Eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Regularly exercising
  • Not smoking
  • Reducing blood pressure

You may already be living with a condition which heightens the likelihood of a TIA, so it is very important to contact your GP to discuss the ways you can manage this effectively.

Page reviewed by Rebecca Bennett, Regional Clinical Lead on November 30, 2021

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