What is a Mini Stroke?

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One moment, everything is fine. The next minute, you realize you can’t move your arm and look in the mirror to see that half of your face looks like it’s drooping.

These are some of the tell-tale signs of a stroke — a serious condition that needs urgent medical attention and can have a lasting impact on your health, especially if you don’t get the right treatment at the right time.

However, you might not be having a stroke like the ones you’ve heard about or seen on TV. You might be having a transient ischemic attack (TIA), commonly referred to as a “mini stroke.”

Don’t let the word “mini” fool you: transient ischemic attacks (TIA) are a serious condition warning you that a larger stroke may be coming- and soon.

What Is a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)?

According to Brett Cucchiara, MD, neurologist at Penn Medicine, TIAs occur when the blood supply to your brain is briefly blocked by a clot or narrowed artery. Narrowed arteries are usually caused by plaque — a buildup of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances. A TIA looks just like a stroke, but it doesn’t last as long.

“Symptoms of a TIA usually go away within an hour,” says Dr. Cucchiara. “Because the symptoms go away, many people ignore them – which is a big mistake because they may be a red flag warning you that a major stroke could happen, and often within the next 48 hours.”

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What Are the Signs of a TIA?

Symptoms of a TIA come on suddenly. You may feel perfectly fine one minute and then suddenly develop difficulty speaking or moving one side of your body. Sometimes the symptoms will come and go several times in a short period of time.

Common signs of a TIA include:

  • Sudden weakness affecting the face, arm, or leg on one side of the body
  • Confusion or trouble speaking or understanding
  • Difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
  • Loss of balance or coordination

Acting fast is key — if a stroke is going to happen after a TIA, it usually happens very soon – often within hours or days of the initial TIA symptoms. Effective treatments to prevent a stroke from occurring are available, but have to be started right away.

“If you have symptoms concerning for TIA you should get medical attention right away,” says Dr. Cucchiara. “Your physician can help you determine if you did have a TIA and develop a plan to reduce your risk of having a stroke in the future.”

Recognizing a TIA

Use the acronym FAST to help you recognize the signs of a TIA and remember to act quickly.

Ask yourself the following FAST questions:

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  • F — Face: Does your face feel lopsided, or are you having trouble smiling?
  • A — Arm: Is it difficult to move one of your arms or does it drift downward?
  • S — Speech: Does your speech feel slurred or strange, or are you having trouble repeating simple phrases?
  • T — Time: Every minute counts, and if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, seek medical help immediately.

If you believe you or someone you love is having a stroke of TIA don’t ignore it, and don’t wait to see if the symptoms will go away. Call 9-1-1 or get to an emergency room right away.

Why Get Treated at a Comprehensive Stroke Center?

All types of strokes — including TIAs — require immediate medical attention. Because a TIA may eventually lead to a larger stroke, diagnosis and treatment are important. However, TIAs can be challenging to diagnose and require careful monitoring.

This is why where you get treated matters.

The Penn Comprehensive Stroke Center at Penn Medicine is among the top in the region. Comprehensive stroke centers are recognized as having the resources, staff, and training necessary to treat complex stroke cases. This designation is determined by the American Heart Association, the American Stroke Association, and the Joint Commission.

Even if you think you’ve had a TIA in the past, the providers at the Penn Comprehensive Stroke Center can determine if you’re at risk for future strokes and can create a treatment plan to reduce your risk.

If a TIA is caused by a blockage in the main artery in your neck that supplies blood to the brain — called the carotid artery — you may need surgery to prevent a future stroke.

What Are Ways to Prevent a TIA?

Nearly 90 percent of strokes and TIAs are caused by plaque-filled blood vessels that block the blood supply to the brain or by a blood clot that travels from other parts of your body — like the heart — to the brain. Plaque buildup can be caused by:

  • Smoking
  • Buildup of high amounts of certain fats and cholesterol in the blood
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar levels

You can reduce your risk of having both a stroke and TIA by maintaining a healthy lifestyle:

  • Find out if you have high blood pressure, and if you do, get treatment
  • Avoid or quit smoking
  • Eat a healthy diet that is low in saturated fat
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Drink alcohol in moderation — or not at all
  • Address other related health issues, such as high cholesterol
  • Maintain a healthy blood sugar level

Your physician may also recommend you take a low dose of aspirin or other blood thinner as part of your stroke prevention routine.

The decisions you make today, such as eating healthy and exercising, may prevent your chances of a stroke tomorrow. If you think you might be experiencing a TIA, take the warning signs seriously, and don’t delay getting help.

To learn more about how mini strokes and how to prevent future strokes, contact the Penn Medicine Comprehensive Stroke Center at 800-789-7366 or request an appointment online today.

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