Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIAs)

What is a TIA?

TIA is the abbreviation for "transient ischemic attack." Transient means "passing with time," or "to exist briefly." The term ischemia, as defined by the American Heart Association, is "a condition in which blood flow (and thus oxygen) is restricted to a part of the body." A transient ischemic attack is a brief interruption of the blood flow to the brain. TIAs occur when a blood clot temporarily blocks an artery and prevents an area of the brain from receiving the blood and oxygen it needs. TIAs are short-lived, lasting less than five minutes. An average TIA usually lasts about a minute. TIAs are often called "mini-strokes" because they produce stroke-like symptoms. Unlike strokes, TIAs do not appear to cause permanent damage to the brain.

What are the symptoms of a TIA?

The common symptoms of a TIA are similar to those of a stroke, but are temporary in duration. TIAs can sometimes cause nausea or vomiting. Symptoms occur suddenly and reach their maximum intensity quickly. These symptoms may include:

  • Sudden dizziness
  • Sudden numbness or weakness in an arm, leg, or on one side of the body
  • Drooping of one side of the face
  • Sudden loss of balance and coordination
  • Sudden difficulty in speaking or in understanding speech
  • Sudden headache
  • Partial loss of vision or double vision

What causes a TIA?

TIAs are caused by blood clots that temporarily block arteries carrying blood and oxygen to the brain. When an artery is blocked, blood flow is interrupted and prevented from reaching parts of the brain. The symptoms a person experiences depend on the area of the brain affected. After the blood clot is dislodged, blood flow resumes and the symptoms disappear.

If the blood clot is not dislodged or if the brain is deprived of oxygen and nutrients for a long period of time, this problem is no longer considered a TIA, but is now called a stroke. With a stroke, the symptoms are no longer temporary, but are long-lasting or, in some cases, permanent.

What to do if a person is having a TIA

As with any medical emergency, if you suspect someone is having a TIA (or a stroke), CALL 911 and GET MEDICAL HELP IMMEDIATELY. Although the symptoms of a TIA are short-lived, "TIAs are extremely important predictors of stroke" (AHA, 2003c). The American Heart Association states that while "most strokes aren't preceded by TIAs," more than one-third of people who have had one or more TIAs will have a stroke in the future. In any event, a doctor should be consulted to determine if a TIA, stroke, or other medical problem with similar symptoms has occurred and to determine the proper treatment.

How frequently do TIAs occur?

According to the American Heart Association (Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics--2003 Update):

  • 2.7% of men age 65-69 will experience a TIA
  • 1.6% of women age 65-69 will experience a TIA
  • 3.6% of men age 75-79 will experience a TIA
  • 4.1% of women age 75-79 will experience a TIA
  • On average, someone in the United States has a stroke every 45 seconds
  • Stroke is the third leading cause of death and the leading cause of adult disability in the United States

Is there a treatment for TIAs?

In order to determine the appropriate treatment for TIAs, it is necessary to identify the cause of the TIA. That is why it is important to seek medical help immediately. Treatments may vary depending on the patient's history and current medical situation. Such treatments, which may include drug therapy or surgery, are focused on reducing the risk of stroke in individuals who have experienced a TIA.

References:

  1. American Heart Association (AHA), Heart and stroke statistics: 2003 update. (Retrieved May 3, 2003.)
  2. American Heart Association (AHA), Silent ischemia and ischemic heart disease. (Retrieved May 3, 2003.)
  3. American Heart Association (AHA), Transient ischemic attack (TIA). (Retrieved May 3, 2003.)
  4. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), NINDS transient ischemic attack (TIA) information page. (Retrieved May 3, 2003.)
  5. Tortora, G.J. and Grabowski, S.R. (1996). Principles of anatomy and physiology (8th ed.), New York, NY: HarperCollins College Publishers.
  6. Victor, M. and Ropper, A.H. (2003). Adams and Victor's manual of neurology (7th ed), New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Page prepared by Erin Hoiland, Neuroscience for Kids Consultant.