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TIA (Transient ischaemic attack)

This fact sheet provides information on transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs). Our fact sheets are designed as general introductions to each subject and are intended to be concise. Sources of further support and more detailed information are listed in the Useful Contacts section below. Each person is affected differently by TIAs and you should speak with your doctor or specialist for individual advice.



You can download this fact sheet as a pdf pdf file.



What is a TIA?

TIA stands for transient ischaemic attack. It is a temporary disruption in the blood supply to the brain. (Transient means temporary and ischaemia is the medical term for an inadequate supply of blood.)

TIAs are caused by a blockage in one of the arteries supplying the brain with blood. (Arteries are the blood vessels through which blood flows from the heart to the rest of the body.) Usually, the blockage is a blood clot.

The brain depends on a supply of blood for the oxygen and nutrients it requires to function properly. When the blood supply is disrupted, brain cells are starved of oxygen and nutrients. This can cause damage to the brain tissue. With TIAs, the clot dissolves and the blood supply resumes before any damage becomes permanent.

TIAs are linked to stroke and are sometimes referred to as mini strokes. TIAs are a warning sign that you are at risk of a stroke and should not be ignored. TIAs can affect people of any age but are more common in older people.

(You might be interested in reading our fact sheet on stroke for further information.)

What are the symptoms of a TIA?

The main symptoms of TIA are the same as those of stroke:

  • physical problems in one side of the body (numbness, weakness),
  • drooping in one side of the face,
  • speech problems (slurred speech, muddled words),
  • visual problems (blurred vision, loss of vision) and
  • dizziness.

The onset of TIA symptoms is usually sudden.

Each person is affected differently by TIA and individual symptoms depend on which parts of the brain are affected and for what specific functions these parts of the brain are responsible.

A TIA is temporary and people make a full recovery within a short period of time. The length of TIAs differs for individuals but, commonly, symptoms would not last more than 24 hours. Some people might have more than one TIA and it is possible to have several TIAs in a short space of time (for example, several TIAs within a day).

What causes TIAs?

Most TIAs are caused by damaged arteries. Damage to the arteries carrying blood to the brain can cause TIAs and strokes in the same way that damaged arteries in the heart can cause heart attacks.

Our arteries tend to harden, narrow and weaken as we get older but people with high blood pressure, smokers, people with high cholesterol, and people with heart disease or diabetes (or a family history of heart disease or diabetes) are at an increased risk.

TIAs are caused by blockages (usually blood clots) in one of the arteries supplying the brain. Clots can form in these arteries themselves or form in a blood vessel elsewhere in the body and travel to the brain. Clots commonly form where arteries have narrowed due to a build-up of fatty deposits (cholesterol) on their inner walls. The narrowing or furring of the arteries is called atherosclerosis.

Although TIAs affect the brain and not the heart, people with an irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation) are at an increased risk. An irregular heartbeat can cause blood clots which can travel to the brain and cause a TIA.

Tests and investigations

The key test for TIA is a brain scan. You might have a CT (Computerised Tomography) scan or an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan.

(You might like to read our fact sheet on brain scans for further information.)

You might also have an ultrasound test to check for any blockages in the main arteries in your neck which supply your brain with blood (the carotid arteries).

Your blood pressure will be checked, you will have blood tests to check your cholesterol and glucose levels, and other tests to check your heart.

What are the treatments?

People who have had a TIA are at an increased risk of having a stroke so it is important to try to reduce this risk. Without treatment, around one in five people who have had a TIA will go on to have a stroke within a month. You might be given medication to thin your blood and make it less sticky to reduce your risk of blood clots. If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol you might be given medication to reduce and control your levels.

If you have a partial blockage in your carotid arteries you might benefit from surgery to clear it.

This operation is called a carotid endarterectomy. Your doctors will discuss your suitability for this procedure with you.

How can I reduce my risk of having a TIA or stroke?

  • Stop smoking
  • Cut down on how much alcohol you drink
  • Eat a healthy diet (cut down on salt and fatty foods)
  • Exercise regularly
  • Have your blood pressure checked

Useful contacts

Brain and Spine Helpline
0808 808 1000
www.brainandspine.org.uk

Run by neuroscience nurses, providing support and information on all aspects of neurological conditions for patients, their families and carers, and health professionals.

The Stroke Association
Stroke Information Service
240 City Road
London EC1V 2PR
0303 303 3100
www.stroke.org.uk

Support and information on stroke and TIAs.

Chest, Heart and Stroke Scotland
65 North Castle Street
Edinburgh EH2 3LT
General: 0845 077 6000
Advice line: 0808 801 0899
www.chss.org.uk

Support and information on stroke and TIAs.

NHS Choices
www.nhs.uk

NHS Direct
0845 46 47

Medical advice and information on health services.




References

Should you wish to view the references for this publication, please contact emma.cowles@brainandspine.org.uk

This information was last checked in July 2013. Due for review July 2014.

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