A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a short episode in which there is a temporary interruption of blood flow in a vessel in the brain. The TIA is often called a mini stroke, since the symptoms are similar to those of a patient suffering a stroke. TIA episodes serve as an indicator that a the patient is at risk of a more serious stroke. Anyone with symptoms of a transient ischemic attack should seek medical attention immediately.
If taken as a warning, the transient ischemic attack should encourage the patient to make lifestyle changes that may prevent a disabling stroke. Symptoms suffered during a TIA can last anywhere from five minutes to 24 hours, but most commonly last about one hour. Because these episodes are short-lived, the patient does not suffer any permanent brain damage and all symptoms should disappear.
Symptoms of the transient ischemic attack can appear suddenly and may include numbness and tingling on either the left or right side of the body, as well as muscle weakness and dizziness. The patient may also experience a sudden loss of vision or have trouble communicating. These symptoms are varied and depend on the location of the vessel in the brain that has become blocked.
Blood circulates to the brain through the left and right carotid arteries, as well as the vertebral arteries. In patients suffering from the disease atherosclerosis, the carotid arteries are susceptible to plaque build up along the inside walls. Plaque can cause the opening of the arteries to become narrow. If pieces of plaque break loose and move into the brain, the patient could experience a transient ischemic attack.
Patients with heart disease or high blood pressure may develop a blood clot within the heart that can then travel to the brain and cause a TIA. Since the TIA is temporary, the blood clot may dissolve quickly or flow through the vessel to allow blood flow to be restored to the brain. It is important that the physician determine the underlying cause of the transient ischemic attack and develop a treatment plan.
Diagnosis is usually made by taking a complete patient history and a description of the symptoms. A computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) would give the physician a complete view of the brain. Ultrasound of the carotid arteries would indicate a build up of plaque. The physician would also need to carefully screen for any heart disease and high blood pressure.
Treatment would most likely include blood thinners, such as aspirin, that prevent platelets in the blood from clotting. Cholesterol-lowering medication may be prescribed if the patient has atherosclerosis. If necessary, the carotid arteries can be surgically scraped to remove any plaque. Any underlying heart disease would need to be treated.
The physician may recommend a variety of lifestyle changes that may help prevent a serious stroke. Patients who smoke cigarettes would be advised to stop smoking. Eating a low-fat diet, developing an exercise plan, and having both cholesterol and blood pressure monitored regularly are positive changes that could help the patient in preventing future disease.