Transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs or ‘mini strokes’) and strokes are medical emergencies. If you have the symptoms of a TIA or stroke, call an ambulance immediately on 000.
According to the National Stroke Foundation, the symptoms of a TIA and stroke come on rapidly and include:
· Weakness, numbness or paralysis of the face, arm or leg
· Difficulty speaking or understanding
· Dizziness or loss of balance
· Blurring or loss of vision
· Headache, usually severe/sudden
· Difficulty swallowing
TIAs occur when an artery supplying blood to the brain is blocked temporarily, usually by a blood clot or cholesterol particle. A TIA can last up to 24 hours, but there is no lasting damage to the brain once the event passes.
On the other hand, a stroke occurs when an artery is permanently blocked. The lack of blood can damage part of the brain, and may lead to permanent disability or even death. A stroke can also be due to a burst blood vessel in the brain.
Doctors try to find the cause of the TIA or stroke with a physical examination, CT scan (brain x-ray), a scan of the arteries in the neck to check the blood flow, ECG (heart test) and blood tests.
Acting quickly saves lives
Most TIAs last less than an hour, but they should never be ignored. One in 5 people with a TIA will have a major stroke in the next 3 months. Urgent assessment can prevent this. Furthermore, an apparent TIA may actually be the start of a stroke.
Stroke also requires an urgent response. A blood clot-dissolving drug can be used in hospital in some cases to unblock the affected artery (thrombolysis) and reduce long-term damage. This drug must be given within 3 hours.
How to prevent TIAs and strokes
After a TIA or stroke, most people are put on ‘triple therapy’: medications to thin the blood (antiplatelet agents), lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol. Other important strategies include good control of diabetes, stopping smoking, exercise and, if necessary, surgery to the blocked carotid (neck) arteries.