What is a TIA?
TIA stands for transient ischemic attack, sometimes known as a “mini” stroke. Most strokes are due to a blockage in a blood vessel that leads to an injury in the brain. A TIA is like a stroke that stopped before any permanent damage was done. This means there is a temporary cessation of blood flow causing dysfunction of the brain, but the blood flow is restored before there’s any permanent damage to the brain.
What’s the difference between a TIA and a full-blown stroke?
With a TIA, the symptoms are usually pretty short-lived. The person might have a drooping face and weakness of the arm on the same side of the body, but it will last only 5 to ten minutes, go away and the person will look and feel completely normal. With a full-blown stroke, the decrease in blood flow goes on for a longer period of time.
What we’ve learned, though, from more modern imaging techniques like MRI—which is sensitive to the earliest signs of a stroke—is that even people who have very brief spells, lasting just five or 10 minutes, do have evidence of permanent damage to the brain about half the time. So, these brief spells that we used to call TIAs are now actually referred to as strokes. The important thing is finding out what made this spell happen and what we can do to prevent the person from having a potentially large, disabling stroke.
If the symptoms resolve quickly, how does a person know they’ve suffered from a TIA and not something less dangerous?
A TIA is a transient event. Because the symptoms go away quickly, people are reassured and assume everything is okay. For that reason, people may attribute their symptoms to something else, like a migraine, a pinched nerve or an inner-ear issue that causes dizziness. When the symptoms are new or different from anything that you’ve experienced before, if they’re severe, or if they come on very suddenly, it’s important to get medical attention right away.
If you can’t come up with an obvious alternative explanation for your symptoms, then you should go to the emergency room and get it checked out because it can be the first sign of a more serious problem. Unfortunately, there’s no real way to know for sure unless you get it checked out.