Learning you’ve had a transient ischemic attack (TIA) might feel like a relief. It’s only a “mini stroke,” and it doesn’t cause permanent damage. In some cases, you may not have even experienced noticeable symptoms.
“Since TIAs don’t result in stroke [and] don’t result in a permanent blockage of the brain, many times people say, ‘Well why do I really care?’” says Carolyn Brockington, MD, a neurologist at Mount Sinai Hospital.
But the truth is that having a mini stroke does not mean you’ve dodged a bullet or you’re off the hook. If anything, a TIA is a warning sign of being at risk for a stroke in the future.
What Is a TIA?
To understand what TIAs mean for your health, it helps to know what they actually are.
What sets a mini stroke apart from a full-blown ischemic stroke is that word transient—meaning “temporary.” During a TIA, blood flow to the brain stops for a only brief period, according to the National Stroke Association. The blockage can mimic symptoms of stroke, but it doesn’t usually cause long-term brain damage.
TIA symptoms may be less severe and noticeable, so you might confuse them for a random headache or dizzy spell. The trademark feature is that they happen suddenly and only last for a short period of time, according to Dr. Brockington.
A common story from people who have had a TIA is that they are walking normally, and “all of a sudden they feel their right leg’s dragging, and maybe their arm’s a little weak on one side,” says Dr. Brockington. “Then a few minutes later it’s gone.”
What It Means to Have a TIA
“TIAs serve as warning signs,” says Dr. Brockington. “Many times, people who will ultimately develop a stroke have had small TIAs along the way.”
In fact, the American Stroke Association (ASA) refers to TIAs not as “mini strokes,” but as “warning strokes.” About a third of people who experience a TIA end up having a more serious stroke within a year, according to the ASA.
Having a TIA is serious, but it could still play a positive role in managing your health. Just like with a full-blown stroke, a TIA may be caused by hypertension, high cholesterol, or smoking.
“That’s the opportunity to figure out when or why something is happening in the brain,” says Dr. Brockington.
If you have a TIA, your doctor can run tests to pinpoint the problem, such as issues with the blood, blood vessels, or heart. For example, if your doctor sees that your blood pressure is too high, he or she may help you treat high blood pressure to lower your risk of having a more serious stroke.
Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes for a healthy heart or prescribe medications, such as blood thinners, to help prevent future stroke.
If you think you may have had a so-called mini stroke, keep this in mind: “Just because the symptoms went away doesn’t mean there’s not a problem,” says Dr. Brockington. “Could it happen again? Certainly, if we don’t identify the real reason why it occurred.”