From head to toe, your blood delivers oxygen to every part of your body. Your cells need it to survive. If your blood flow gets blocked anywhere, it can bring big trouble. One serious effect is a problem called a transient ischemic attack, or TIA for short.
When you have a TIA, the flow of blood to part of your brain gets cut off for a short time. It's also called a ministroke, but don't let the "mini" part fool you. A TIA can be a sign that a full-blown stroke is on the way. About 1 in 3 people who have a TIA go on to have a stroke, often within a year.
TIAs are short and won't cause lasting damage, but it's still important to treat them like an emergency and get care right away.
What Causes a TIA?
TIAs typically happen because a blood clot gets lodged in an artery that supplies blood to the brain. Without regular blood flow, your brain is starved for oxygen and can't work like it normally does.
That's why you get symptoms like muscle weakness or slurred speech. It would be like having a clogged fuel line in your car. Your engine can't run if it's not getting gas.
Clots form when you have a buildup of a fatty, waxy substance called plaque in your arteries. They can take shape anywhere in your body and float along until they get stuck somewhere. If that "somewhere" happens to be an artery that goes to your brain, you can have a TIA.
You can also get a TIA if so much plaque builds up in an artery that it severely limits blood flow to the brain, just like a clot.
How Is a TIA Different From a Stroke?
TIAs are very similar to ischemic strokes, which are also caused by blood clots.
The main difference is that a TIA only lasts a few minutes. The clot then gets pushed along, like a temporary clog in a pipe, or chemicals in your body quickly break it down. Normal blood flow returns to your brain before any lasting problems set in. Symptoms can last for up to 24 hours, but they're usually gone in an hour.
Strokes, on the other hand, don't go away so quickly. That means some part of your brain goes without oxygen, and the longer that lasts, the more damage happens. While a TIA comes on, goes away, and leaves no symptoms, a stroke can have long-lasting effects and can be life-threatening.
Who's Most Likely to Have a TIA?
The same things that raise your odds of a stroke also affect your risk of a TIA, and there are a lot of issues in play.
Risks you can't control. Some things you can't change, but it's helpful to be aware of them:
- Age. The odds of a TIA or stroke get much higher when you're over 55.
- Family history. If one of your grandparents, parents, or a brother or sister had a stroke, you have a greater chance of getting a TIA.
- Previous TIA. Once you've had one, you're much more likely to get another.
- Race. African-Americans, as well as people who belong to South Asian and Caribbean ethnic groups, have a higher chance of a TIA than others.
- Gender. Women have a greater risk of strokes and TIAs than men.
Health conditions. Other medical problems you have can also increase the odds of a TIA, including:
- Being overweight
- Carotid artery disease, where the main arteries from your heart to your brain are narrowed or clogged
- Heart disease, including heart defects and rhythm problems like atrial fibrillation (AFib)
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD), where arteries in your arms or legs get blocked
- Sickle cell disease, a genetic condition where misshaped blood cells can get wedged in arteries more easily
Lifestyle. Some of the choices you make every day may also affect your chances of having a TIA. You may have a higher risk if you:
- Drink a lot of alcohol
- Don't get enough exercise
- Eat too many foods high in cholesterol, saturated fats, and trans fats, and not enough fruits, veggies, and fiber
- Use drugs such as amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin
Risks for women. Odds of a TIA may be higher for women who:
- Are pregnant, since pregnancy can raise your blood pressure and make your heart work harder
- Get migraines with auras
- Take birth control pills, especially if you smoke or have high blood pressure
- Use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to treat menopause symptoms