In the U.S., a person has a stroke every 40 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — making strokes just as widespread as they are dangerous.
There are different causes of stroke, but the most common is a blockage of blood flow to part of the brain, which is called an ischemic stroke.
Transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs — sometimes also called mini-strokes — are also ischemic attacks, but they only last for a few minutes before blood flow is restored.
That doesn’t mean they’re any less serious than a full-fledged stroke, though, noted Dr. Karishma Patwa, a cardiologist with Manhattan Cardiology, which provides cardiac testing and preventive treatment in New York.
Patwa shared with Fox News Digital the most important things to know about identifying and preventing mini-strokes.
“Every second that the brain goes without oxygen increases the likelihood of serious and permanent brain damage,” Patwa said.
“Just like a stroke, a TIA deprives the brain of oxygen and should be treated with the same urgency.”
Causes of a mini-stroke
There are several possible causes of a TIA.
A clot could form in the brain itself, or a clot from another part of the body can break loose and make its way through the bloodstream until it becomes lodged in the brain, Patwa said.
“In order to best treat a TIA and prevent a future stroke, doctors will want to determine the exact cause of the TIA,” the doctor said.
“The longer a person goes without examination, the less likely doctors will be able to determine the cause, leading to a diagnosis of cryptogenic TIA — which means TIA of unknown origin.”
Once someone has had a mini-stroke, the risk of having another stroke event is between 5% and 10% within the first seven days, Patwa warned.
“This number actually goes up to about 15% in the first month after a TIA and up to 35% over the course of a patient’s lifetime,” she said. “That’s why early recognition and treatment of a TIA is extremely important — to prevent the more devastating complications of a large stroke.”
Symptoms of transient ischemic attack
The symptoms of a TIA are the same as symptoms of stroke, Patwa noted.
The symptoms can include:
- Numbness, weakness, or paralysis, especially on only one side of the body (might affect arms, legs or face)
- Slurred speech, difficulty speaking or inability to speak at all
- Difficulty understanding others
- Double vision, blurriness or trouble seeing out of one or both eyes
- Loss of coordination or balance, clumsiness or difficulty walking
- Intense headache
- Memory loss
- Loss of consciousness
“Symptoms tend to appear suddenly and without any obvious cause,” Patwa said.
“In the case of a TIA, the symptoms will last for less than a day, and often just a matter of minutes or even seconds, but it should still be treated as a medical emergency.”
It’s important to act quickly as soon as the symptoms begin, she said.
“At that time, there’s no way to know whether an ischemic attack will be transient or not. Don’t wait to find out — call 911 immediately,” she advised.
The doctor recommends using the FAST acronym, a common tool for remembering symptoms and action steps when someone is suspected of having a stroke or TIA.
- F is for Face. Facial drooping, especially on just one side, is a common symptom of TIA. “Ask the person to smile and look to see if it’s asymmetrical,” Patwa said.
- A is for Arms. Arm weakness is also common, the doctor noted. “Ask the person to raise both arms and look to see if one or both arms drifts downward.”
- S is for Speech. Speech difficulty, including slurred speech, frequently occurs during TIA. “Ask the person to recite something uncomplicated, such as their full name and home address,” Patwa said.
- T is for Time. If there is a chance the person is experiencing a TIA, it’s time to call 911, the doctor said.
“It’s important to stress that someone who just experienced a TIA should not get behind the wheel of a car,” Patwa also said.
“Calling 911 and requesting an ambulance would be the best course of action, and in lieu of that, the closest responsible adult should drive the person to the emergency room,” she added.
Diagnosis and treatment
For people who have had a TIA, prompt diagnosis and aggressive treatment are the best route to an improved outlook, Patwa said.
“People who delay or refuse examination and treatment are much more likely to experience a stroke during the next 90 days.”
The symptoms may last for less than a day, and often just a matter of minutes or even seconds, but this should still be treated as a medical emergency.
In most cases, a mini–stroke is diagnosed with a physical and neurological examination, medical history and imaging tests such as an MRI, CT scan or X-ray.
“Depending on what is found during diagnosis, a treatment plan could include medication, the use of stents, angioplasty or surgical procedures,” said Patwa.
Tips for preventing mini–strokes
“There are also steps a person can take to help prevent a TIA, or to help prevent a stroke after having a TIA,” said Patwa.
These preventative steps can include:
- Quitting smoking, or not starting
- Limiting alcohol
- Managing blood pressure and cholesterol
- Maintaining a healthy weight, along with healthy nutritional, exercise and sleeping habits
- Getting annual physical examinations
People who are at risk for stroke or coronary artery disease are at higher risk for transient ischemic attacks, Patwa said.
“This includes the elderly, smokers and patients with diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol,” she noted.
The highest risk factor for a TIA is a previous TIA or stroke, Patwa added.
“The most important thing is to not treat a TIA like a one-and-done anomaly,” she said.
“A TIA is a warning that a stroke is not only possible but likely, and in the near term.”
She added, “Anyone suspected of experiencing a TIA should seek medical attention immediately.”