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Transient ischaemic attack (TIA)

Transient ischaemic attack (TIA) is sometimes referred to as a mini-stroke. It produces similar symptoms, but generally only lasts a few minutes and causes no permanent damage. 

X-rays of brain activity during a stroke

A TIA should, however, be taken seriously and treated as a warning sign of a possible future stroke, and preventative measures should be implemented. 

Transient ischaemic stroke causes include a blood clot that blocks blood flow to certain sections of the brain. This blockage is brief, and symptoms go away once it has dissolved. 

Less commonly, a TIA can be caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure (hypotension) that reduces blood flow to the brain.

What are its symptoms?

Transient ischaemic attacks usually last a few minutes, with symptoms disappearing within an hour. Symptoms include:

  • Sudden weakness, or paralysis in the face, arm or leg (usually on one side of the body)
  • Sudden numbness or tingling in the face, arm or leg
  • Abrupt vision changes – blurred vision or blindness in one or both eyes
  • Garbled or slurred speech
  • Confusion
  • Trouble understanding what someone else is saying
  • Problems with walking, balance or coordination

How is it diagnosed? 

TIA diagnosis will involve taking a medical history including checking for stroke risk factors, such as high cholesterol levels, hypertension (also known as high blood pressure), or diabetes

Heart and blood vessel imaging tests, such as a CT (computerised tomography) scan, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or angiogram may also be performed, as well as the following:

  • A Doppler ultrasound that checks blood flow
  • An echocardiogram to see the shape of the heart and its blood flow
  • An ECG (electrocardiogram) to measure heart rhythm
  • Blood tests to rule out any other conditions that may have caused the symptoms

What are your treatment options? 

After a TIA, your risk for stroke will be assessed. Treatment will involve preventing another TIA or stroke. Medication or surgery may be necessary depending on the severity and cause of the TIA.

1. Medications: Anti-platelet drugs may be prescribed – this makes the platelets in your blood less likely to stick together, preventing clot formation. Examples include aspirin or clopidogrel. Anticoagulants may be prescribed – these affect the protein clotting process as opposed to platelet clotting. Generally, careful monitoring is required with their use. 

2. Surgery: If the artery in the neck (carotid artery) has narrowed, you may require an endarterectomy, which involves surgery to clear away fatty deposits or plaque. Angioplasty or ‘stenting’ is another option for certain cases – this involves using a balloon-like device to open a clogged artery, and placing a small tube or stent in the artery to keep it open. 

Can it be prevented? 

You can greatly reduce your risk for developing TIA with the following:

  • Reducing high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Taking antiplatelet medication such as aspirin
  • Monitoring blood sugar levels in diabetes patients
  • Making healthy lifestyle choices: stopping smoking, being active, maintaining a regular weight, eating heart healthy food, and monitoring cholesterol

Be aware of other risk factors that cannot be controlled, for instance family history of TIA, age (the risk increases after the age of 55) and gender (men are more at risk). Stroke is also a complication associated with sickle cell disease

For more information, visit The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in July 2016