Treat "mini-strokes" as an emergency, not a gentle warning
Transient ischemic attack needs a new name. Its current nickname, mini-stroke, doesn't fill the bill either. Both suggest something small and passing, a fleeting problem you can put off until you have the time to do something about it. What's needed is something that conveys urgency and harm, because a transient ischemic attack (TIA) is often followed by a full-blown stroke. Getting evaluated and treated right away — within minutes of having a TIA, if possible — can lower the chances of having a stroke.
At the outset, there's little difference between a TIA and the most common kind of stroke, an ischemic stroke. They look the same, feel the same, and are caused by the same thing — a blood clot or bit of cholesterol-filled plaque that is blocking blood flow in an artery that nourishes part of the brain. The big thing that separates a TIA from a stroke is how long it lasts. A TIA is over quickly, often fading away within hours, if not minutes, while a stroke lasts longer than 24 hours. The blockage can cause any of the following:
- numbness or weakness in your face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
- inability to move your fingers, a hand, arm, or leg
- sudden confusion
- difficulty speaking or understanding what someone is saying
- trouble seeing with one or both eyes or hearing with one or both ears
- dizziness, trouble walking, or loss of balance or coordination
- rapid and severe headache.
In the case of a TIA, the blockage is small enough or fragile enough that the body's self-repair systems can reopen the artery, which stops the symptoms. Larger or sturdier blockages lead to strokes.
Lack of solid information on the long-term impact of TIAs has made consensus difficult on how best to treat them. The results of two trials, dubbed SOS-TIA and EXPRESS, are tipping the balance toward a rapid response.
In SOS-TIA, French researchers set up a hospital clinic in Paris that was open around the clock to evaluate and treat people within hours of having what appeared to be a TIA. Just 1% of those seen at the clinic had a stroke within three months, far fewer than the 6% expected based on the participants' signs, symptoms, and health.
A similarly dramatic reduction in stroke was seen in the EXPRESS study, carried out in the area around Oxford, England. Among people who were quickly evaluated for a TIA, 2% had a stroke within three months compared to 10% whose follow-up visits were a few days to two weeks after their TIAs.
Preventing the worst
The American Heart Association and National Stroke Association offer these recommendations for preventing stroke after a transient ischemic attack:
Although it will be impossible to prevent all post-TIA strokes, we can do a lot better. But that will take work on three fronts:
Recognition. Knowing the signs and symptoms of a TIA is the first step toward making it a truly transient problem.
Response. If you think you or someone you are with is having a TIA or stroke, call 911 or your local emergency number right away. If it's a stroke, getting to the hospital within 60 minutes makes you eligible to receive a clot-busting drug that can greatly reduce the damage caused by a stroke. If it's a TIA, prompt evaluation can help prevent a stroke.
Reorganization. So far, only a few hospitals have set up dedicated stroke centers that are able to rapidly evaluate people having TIAs and strokes. There is a movement under way to create more such centers, but it won't happen quickly.
In the meantime, if you think you are having a TIA, or just had one, treat it like the emergency it is and get help right away.
July 2009 update