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Should You Worry About Mini-Strokes?

A middle-aged woman sits up on an exam table for a check-up with a nurse facing her

A transient ischemic attack (TIA), commonly referred to as a mini-stroke, can be a serious and frightening experience.

“A stroke occurs when the brain is injured, either because there’s not enough blood flow or there’s too much blood because an artery ruptured,” says Cathy Sila, MD, University Hospitals Stroke Center Director. “A transient ischemic attack is typically caused by a blocked blood vessel. But it’s so short-lived that the brain doesn’t become damaged.”

Signs and Symptoms

While the immediate effects of a TIA aren’t worrisome, they can be an important warning sign. More than 240,000 people experience a TIA each year. Nearly 20 percent will go on to have a stroke within the next 90 days.

The signs and symptoms of a TIA are very similar to a stroke. They usually cause weakness or numbness on one side of the body, and other symptoms that are abbreviated BE FAST to emphasize the importance of rapid response and treatment:

  • B – Balance: A sudden onset of walking instability, dizziness, or balance problem.
  • E – Eye: A sudden problem with vision. Either one eye or one half of the vision is distorted or lost.
  • F – Face: When you go to smile, your face droops on one side.
  • A – Arms: Not being able to lift one arm or not being able to grip with your hands.
  • S – Speech: Either slurred or confused speech or not being able to understand what others are saying.
  • T – Time: Call 9-1-1 right away.

“A TIA and a stroke are medical emergencies. And so, it’s very important to get medical care as soon as possible so that symptoms can be reversed,” says Dr. Sila.

What Causes Strokes?

While anyone can have a stroke, the risk increases over time, doubling every 10 years after age 55 as the arteries become harder and narrower. Additionally, certain medical conditions and behaviors can increase your risk of stroke, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Irregular heart rhythm (atrial fibrillation)
  • Heart disease
  • Smoking
  • Drugs/alcohol
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Hormonal therapy (birth control pills, estrogen, testosterone)

Treating Mini-Strokes

A medical professional should review a rapid image of the brain and blood vessels to identify the cause of the TIA or stroke so that treatment can begin immediately, if necessary.

A major concern is if the cause of the TIA is a major artery blockage with unstable plaque, which could break off or the artery could shut down – both dangerous situations. After a TIA, lifestyle changes are essential to reduce the chance of a stroke. Talk to your primary care doctor about things like quitting smoking, eating healthier and getting exercise.

In addition, you may be prescribed certain medications, including:

  • Blood thinners to avoid blood clots
  • Blood pressure or cholesterol drugs
  • Diabetes medication because over time, excessive blood glucose can increase fatty deposits or clots in blood vessels, leading to stroke.

“The best way to treat a stroke is to prevent one to begin with,” says Dr. Sila. “Because 85 percent of all strokes can be prevented if you know your risk factors and you have a treatment plan to manage those risks.”

Related Links

The board-certified stroke specialists at University Hospitals Comprehensive Stroke Center treat the most complex neurovascular disorders. Learn more.