What Is a Mini-Stroke?
A mini-stroke is a temporary disruption in blood flow to the brain, spinal cord or retina that doesn’t result in permanent brain injury. It is usually caused by a blood clot in an artery that supplies the brain, and less often by bleeding into the brain tissue.
Unlike regular strokes, the blockage in mini-strokes breaks up on its own and the blood flow is restored, without damaging brain cells or causing permanent disability. For this reason a mini-stroke is often called a transient ischemic attack.
It’s difficult to differentiate between a mini-stroke and a stroke when it is happening, as their symptoms typically overlap and may comprise:
- Muscle weakness or numbness in the face, arms or legs, particularly on side of the body
- Difficulty speaking (dysphasia)
- Difficulty understanding speech
- Difficulty walking or loss of balance and coordination
- Vision changes, such as double or blurry vision in one or both eyes
- Paresthesia or tingling sensation
- Abnormal taste or smells
- Altered consciousness or passing out.
The only difference is that mini-stroke symptoms may persist only for a few minutes and usually disappear within an hour (although, sometimes can last up to 24 hours), whereas stroke symptoms do not resolve, causing permanent damage and inability to regain normal body function even with treatment. This makes mini stroke insidious, because most people do not seek immediate medical assistance and just wait for the symptoms to go away. However, one third of people can have either a recurrent mini stroke or a full-blown one within 3 months.1 That is why recognizing the symptoms and seeking medical help is important.
There is a simple method to recognize if a person is suffering a stroke or a mini-stroke and what to do. It is called the FAST test, which makes you keep in mind what to look for and what to do when someone develops stroke symptoms. The acronym FAST stands for face, arms, speech and time, and namely:
Facial drooping. Ask the person to smile. If one side of their face, mouth or eye, droops, it’s a warning sign of a stroke.
Arm weakness. Ask the person to lift arms. If he or she has difficulty lifting or moving both or one of their arms, or if one arm drifts down, it must set you on the alert.
Speech difficulties. Ask the person to repeat a short sentence or a simple phrase. If their speech is slurred, gabled or odd, it is a telling sign.
Time to call emergency. If a person has just one of these three signs, not to mention all of them, it is time to call emergency and have them evaluated at an emergency department. The sooner medical treatment is sought, the better chances for recovery are.
It is crucially important to be able to recognize the FAST symptoms if the person affected belongs to a high-risk group, and namely:
- Is over 55
- has hypertension
- suffers from diabetes
- has cardiovascular disease, including heart rhythm problems like atrial fibrillation
- has peripheral or carotid artery disease, where arteries are clogged due to atherosclerosis
- has sickle-cell anemia, a genetic disease where misshaped blood cells easily get wedged in arteries
- receives hormonal treatment
- is pregnant.
Mini-stroke is an emergency. However, it is not infrequent that by the time the person reaches emergency department, the symptoms are already resolving. Hospitalization may be necessary for additional testing and assigning treatment or surgery, depending on the cause. As a rule, treatment involves medications to prevent blood clots, such as anti-platelets or anticoagulants. Otherwise, angioplasty is recommended.
Supreet Khare. “Risk factors of transient ischemic attack: An overview”. Journal of Mid-life Health. 7(1): 2–7. Published online: January-March, 2016. http://doi.org/10.4103/0976-7800.179166