What Does a Mini Stroke Mean?

Understanding transient ischemic attacks (TIA)

Getty Images/ Betsie Van der Meer

A mini stroke, also known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA), is a brief stroke that improves on its own. A mini stroke is characterized by neurological symptoms that can range from mild to severe and may involve physical impairment or cognitive functions.

What Causes a Mini Stroke?

A mini stroke occurs when there is a temporary period during which there is a lack of blood flow to an area of the brain.

This is similar to a stroke, with the difference being that a mini stroke improves because blood flow is quickly restored before permanent brain injury can occur. In a stroke, however, blood flow remains impaired for long enough period of time to produce permanent brain  injury.

The medical term for a mini stroke is a transient ischemic (TIA) attack because it is a brief period of ischemia that produces sudden neurological symptoms.

Lack of blood flow is called ischemia. Because ischemia impairs the function of brain cells, a person who is experiencing a TIA develops temporary problems in brain function, such as difficulty speaking or moving the face, arm, or leg on one side of their body.

The healthy brain requires a constant delivery of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to each one of its approximately 100 billion neurons. To ensure normal brain function, blood travels through multiple blood vessels to every part of the brain.

Sometimes, however, blood vessels become temporarily blocked by blood clots or cholesterol plaques, leaving areas of the brain briefly lacking enough blood supply. The resulting lack of oxygen and nutrients in these areas is known as ischemia.

A TIA resolves before permanent damage can happen. However, if the blood flow is not quickly restored, then a stroke occurs because neurons in ischemic areas become deprived of oxygen and nutrients and rapidly stop functioning.

Mini Stroke Symptoms

The symptoms of a TIA can last from a few minutes to a few hours, but by definition they go away in less than 24 hours. Most of the time, mini strokes are brief, lasting for only a few seconds or minutes. 

Up to 20 percent of people who experience mini stroke symptoms go on to have a major stroke within the following three months. Unfortunately, many people do not seek medical attention and thus are at a high risk of experiencing a stroke.

The symptoms of a mini stroke begin suddenly and vary depending on the part of the brain that is affected. For instance, a person who suffers a mini stroke in the area of the brain that controls hand movement may develop difficulty writing for a few minutes or even a few hours. A person who experiences a mini stroke of a similar size in the brainstem—an area of the brain which harbors the centers for gait balance, voice control, and eye movements—might feel temporarily unable to carry on with his/her day because of vertigo, difficulty speaking, or double vision.

Mini strokes are most noticeable when they affect the parts of the brain that control movement and feeling in the face, arm, or leg. They can also affect the ability to understand and produce speech.

Here is a list of the most common symptoms of a mini stroke:

  • Weakness of the face, arm, and/or leg on one side of body
  • Numbness of face, arm, and/or leg one side of the body
  • Inability to understand spoken language
  • Inability to speak
  • Unexplained dizziness or vertigo
  • Loss of vision through one eye or both eyes
  • Double vision or blurry vision

There are several differences between a stroke and a TIA. But, the main difference is that the symptoms of mini stroke/TIA disappear completely within 24 hours, while strokes leave long-lasting physical impairments due to the permanent damage to the brain.

Treatment of Mini Strokes

While mini strokes themselves improve, a mini stroke is a sign that you are at risk of having a stroke.

That is why, even if you have recovered, it is essential to seek medical attention right away if you experience neurological symptoms.

Sometimes, a person can experience a stroke within 24 hours of a first mini stroke, and sometimes months or even years after a first mini stroke. The problem is that you cannot predict if and when you will have a stroke if you have experienced a mini stroke. 

Your treatment plan will depend on the results of your TIA workup. After listening to your medical history and thoroughly examining you, your doctor may run some tests to determine whether you have risk factors for stroke, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, blood disease, high cholesterol or another stroke risk factor. Your medical treatment will be tailored to lowering your chances of having a stroke based on your risk factors, and may include treatment with blood thinners.

A Word From Verywell

If you have experienced a mini stroke, you may be hearing conflicting advice from your friends and family members. A mini stroke is a TIA and requires medical attention. If you have had a mini stroke, you have a strong chance of avoiding a stroke if you get the screening a stroke prevention treatment you need. Taking action to prevent a stroke after having a TIA can have a huge impact in terms of preventing disability, and even in prolonging your life. Avoiding a stroke is estimated to add 12 1/2 years to your life. Consider a mini stroke a health warning that you can gain control of.

Source:

Impact of Hospital Admission for Patients with Transient Ischemic Attack, Cheng EM, Myers LJ, Vassar S, Bravata DM, J Stroke Cerebrovasc Dis. 2017 May 10.  

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