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How is a mini-stroke different from a stroke? Who is at risk? And, how can you prevent it?

A mini-stroke is a name for what doctors call a transient ischemic attack (TIA). It occurs when part of the brain experiences a temporary lack of blood flow. This causes stroke-like symptoms that can last as briefly as one minute or up to 24 hours. Often, the symptoms are gone by the time you get to a doctor.

The National Stroke Association list three things that usually cause TIAs:

  1. Low blood flow at a narrow part of a major artery carrying blood to the brain, such as the carotid artery.
  2. A blood clot in another part of the body (such as the heart) breaks off, travels to the brain, and blocks a blood vessel in the brain.
  3. Narrowing of the smaller blood vessels in the brain, blocking blood flow for a short period of time; usually caused by plaque (a fatty substance) build-up.

Unlike a stroke, a TIA doesn’t kill brain tissue or cause permanent disabilities. However, since symptoms of a TIA and a stroke are nearly identical, you should ALWAYS seek immediate emergency attention if you experience any symptoms. In addition, a TIA can be a warning to an actual stroke—40 percent of people who have a TIA will have an actual stroke, some within the first few days after a TIA.

Symptoms of a TIA are:

  • vision changes
  • trouble speaking
  • confusion
  • balance issues
  • tingling
  • an altered level of consciousness
  • dizziness
  • passing out
  • an abnormal sense of taste
  • an abnormal sense of smell
  • weakness or numbness on just one side of the body or face

Are you at risk for a mini-stroke?

There are two types of risk factors when it comes to stroke and to mini-strokes. They include factors you can control and those you cannot control.

Risk factors you can control include:

  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • smoking
  • high cholesterol
  • heavy alcohol use
  • being overweight
  • physical inactivity

Other factors that are associated with an increased risk include:

  • atrial fibrillation
  • sleep apnea
  • clogging of the carotid arteries in the neck

Risk factors you cannot control include:

  • Age—the risk of having a TIA increases with age
  • Race—African Americans, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives all have a higher risk of suffering a TIA
  • Gender—women are at higher risk
  • Family history—your risk increases if a parent or a brother or sister has had a TIA or stroke

A good way to find out your risk factors is to take the National Stroke Association TIA risk calculator.

6 things you can do to lower your TIA risk

  1. Lower your blood pressure—try to maintain a blood pressure of less than 120/80 or a less aggressive goal of 140/90. Eat less salt. Avoid high cholesterol foods, eat more fruits and vegetables, fish and whole grains.
  1. Manage your weight—if you’re overweight, losing as little as 10 pounds can have a real impact on your stroke risk.
  1. Exercise—do something you like at a moderate pace for 30 minutes at least 5 days a week.
  1. Drink in moderation—limit yourself to one glass of alcohol per day.
  1. Treat health problems—see your doctor and treat problems such as atrial fibrillation, diabetes and sleep apnea.
  1. Quit smoking—ask your doctor for advice on the most appropriate way for you to quit.

A TIA is a serious medical condition that requires immediate treatment. Treatment for a TIA will also help prevent a stroke from happening in the future. It’s important to stick with your treatment plan and to go to follow-up medical appointments. You and your doctor can determine the best preventive steps for you based on your specific medical needs.

Make getting and staying healthy easier:

Consider signing up for CarePlus—a free concierge health care service. When you sign up for CarePlus our team will help you:

  • find the right doctor
  • get appointments quickly
  • get faster access to your medical information—like lab results
  • obtain referrals to specialists and the pre-authorizations you may need
  • get your insurance questions answered