Reversible Ischemic Neurologic Disease (RIND) - Transient Ischemic Attack
Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors
A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is an injury to the brain caused by a
temporary interruption in its blood supply. A TIA is like a stroke, except that
it lasts only a brief time.
What is going on in the body?
During a transient ischemic attack, there is a lack of blood flow to a portion
of the brain. This causes symptoms in the body depending on the part of the
brain that is affected. A TIA can last up to 24 hours. However, typical TIAs
often last less than 30 minutes. The person remains conscious during the
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
Transient ischemic attacks are caused by a temporary interruption of the blood
flow to brain cells. Since a TIA is a short-term type of stroke, the risk
factors for stroke apply to TIAs as well.
The American Heart Association has recently issued guidelines for stroke
prevention. The guidelines discuss risk factors for stroke in 3 categories:
nonmodifiable, well-documented modifiable, and less well-documented or
The nonmodifiable factors are ones that cannot be changed by the individual
increasing age. A person's risk of stroke doubles each year after age
race. Strokes occur approximately twice as often in blacks and Hispanics as
they do in whites.
gender. Men have a 50% higher chance of stroke than women do.
family history of stroke or transient ischemic attack
Well-documented modifiable risk factors are those that can be changed by the
individual in conjunction with his or her healthcare provider. These factors
are linked to stroke by strong research findings, and there is documented proof
that changing the risk factor lowers a person's risk of stroke. These factors
high blood pressure
asymptomatic carotid stenosis, or
narrowing of one of the arteries in the neck
sickle cell anemia,
disorder that forms abnormal red blood cells
high cholesterol levels
blood, including total
LDL or "bad
cholesterol." Low levels
of HDL or "good
cholesterol" are also
cause for concern.
atrial fibrillation, an
Less well-documented or potentially modifiable risk factors for stroke are
those that have less proof of either a link to stroke or the impact of
modifying the risk factor. These factors include:
high blood levels of homocysteine, a blood component sometimes associated
with a higher risk of stroke
blood disorders, such as blood that clots easily or deficiencies of various
The AHA currently states that the risk of stroke associated with HRT appears
low but needs further study.
use of birth control pills, or oral
inflammatory processes, such as a chronic infection with chlamydia
Several recent studies have identified factors that seem to increase or
decrease the risk of stroke in particular groups of people. These studies,
which warrant further investigation, include these findings:
People who were treated for high
pressure with thiazide diuretics, such as hydrochlorothiazide, had
significantly lower stroke risk than people on ACE inhibitors or calcium
Women ages 39 to 50 who ate more fish and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids had a reduced risk of stroke. This was particularly true in women who did not take aspirin regularly.
Women ages 15 to 44 who had 2 drinks of wine a day had a 40% to 60% lower
risk of stroke than women who did not drink
Phenylpropanolamine, a compound contained in appetite suppressants and cold
remedies, significantly increased the risk of hemorrhagic stroke in women 18 to 49
years of age. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has since asked
manufacturers to remove phenylpropanolamine from their products.
Symptoms & Signs
What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
Symptoms of TIA can vary, depending on which blood vessels in the brain are
affected. A TIA may also occur without symptoms, or it may have symptoms such as:
problems with movement, such as weakness, clumsiness, or paralysis.
These are often on only one side of the body. In some cases, people may only
have weakness or clumsiness in their hand. In other cases, one entire half of
the body becomes paralyzed.
numbness or a lack of feeling, which is also often on only one side
of the body
slurred speech or difficulty finding the correct word
difficulty doing math or writing
difficulty understanding speech or writing
inability to recognize family members or common objects
nausea or vomiting
balance problems, known as ataxia
Diagnosis & Tests
How is the condition diagnosed?
The first step in diagnosis of transient ischemic attack is a medical history and
physical exam. This may be all that is needed to make the diagnosis. In other
cases, further tests may be needed.
Cranial MRIs and
scans may be ordered to distinguish a TIA from a stroke. They can
also show whether or not there is bleeding in the brain, which can help with
some treatment decisions.
Other tests may be ordered to help determine the cause of the TIA. For
instance, a special X-ray test of the neck arteries can detect blockage.
Certain X-ray tests of the heart can show heart failure or changes from a heart
attack. A heart tracing, or ECG, can show abnormal heartbeats, such as atrial
fibrillation, or certain changes from a heart attack.
Prevention & Expectations
What can be done to prevent the condition?
Transient ischemic attacks can be minimized by addressing known risk factors
for stroke. The American Heart Association guidelines for stroke prevention
address both modifiable and less well-documented or potentially modifiable risk
Measures to reduce the modifiable risk of
high blood pressure include:
measurement of blood
adults at least every 2 years to screen for
high blood pressure
moderation in alcohol
moderate sodium intake
for those who smoke, quitting
medications to treat high blood pressure if the person's blood pressure is
over 140/90 after 3 months of these lifestyle modifications, or if the initial
blood pressure is over 180/100
Other measures to reduce an individual's modifiable risk factors for stroke may
patches, counseling, and formal smoking programs
control of blood sugar levels in a person with diabetes through medication, diet, and exercise
the use of ramipril in people with diabetes. A recent study showed that people with diabetes have a 33% lower risk of stroke if they take ramipril.
careful evaluation of asymptomatic carotid stenosis to determine the need for surgery. Coronary artery surgery, such as an endarterectomy,
indicated. An endarterectomy opens the narrow portion of the artery and
increases the blood flow to the brain. People with carotid stenosis should
also work closely with their healthcare providers to control other risk factors
semiannual screening of children with
sickle cell anemia, using ultrasound to determine the child's risk
treatment of atrial
with blood thinners such as aspirin or warfarin, depending on the person's age
and other risk factors
monitoring of high levels of total cholesterol or LDL, as well as low
levels of HDL. Depending on the blood levels and the person's other risk
factors, medications to lower cholesterol may be given.
Measures to reduce less well-documented or potentially modifiable risks for
stroke may include:
weight reduction in overweight persons
30 or more minutes of moderate exercise a day for most individuals.
People with heart disease
disabilities should be in a medically supervised exercise program.
a healthy diet for preventing heart
containing at least 5 fruits and vegetables a day
for those who drink
drinking in moderation. The AHA defines moderate drinking as no more than 2
drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women.
seeking treatment for drug
monitoring of blood levels of homocysteine. For most individuals, a
well-balanced diet following the food guide pyramid will provide enough folic
acid and B vitamins to maintain a healthy homocysteine level. For people with
elevated homocysteine levels, supplements containing folic acid and B vitamins
may be recommended.
avoiding the use of oral contraceptives in women with other stroke risk
What are the long-term effects of the condition?
There are usually no long-term effects of the transient ischemic attack itself.
However, a recent study showed that people who had a TIA increased their
chance of having a stroke by 50% in the 3 months following the TIA. Twenty
percent of these strokes were fatal, and two-thirds were disabling.
Furthermore, the increased risk of stroke in the 3 months after a TIA was
linked to 5 factors:
age over 60 years
a TIA lasting more than 10 minutes
weakness with the
with the TIA
What are the risks to others?
TIAs are not contagious and pose no risks to others.
Treatment & Monitoring
What are the treatments for the condition?
Most people with transient ischemic attacks are treated right away with aspirin
and then with blood thinners if they do not have bleeding into the brain. Blood
thinners help prevent further TIAs or strokes.
Because the symptoms of a TIA are the same as those of a stroke, the emergency medical system should be
immediately. These symptoms include a sudden onset of:
weakness or numbness
of the face,
arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
trouble walking or loss of balance, known as ataxia
trouble speaking or understanding speech
Specific types of medication may be needed in special cases. For instance,
those with a heart infection may be given antibiotics. Those with arteritis are
often given corticosteroids, such as prednisone, to reduce inflammation in the
If an individual has significant narrowing of the carotid arteries, a carotid
endarterectomy may be recommended to widen them. This surgical procedure removes
the cholesterol plaques and may prevent future strokes. The decision to
perform surgery will depend on the person's neurological status, the type of
plaque clogging the artery, and whether the plaque has a break in it, known as
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Side effects depend on the treatments used. For instance, aspirin may cause
allergic reactions, stomach upset, or bleeding. Clot-busting
medications can cause excessive bleeding. A
ventilator may sometimes cause damage to the lungs or an infection.
A carotid artery endarterectomy can cause bleeding, infections, and allergic reactions to the anesthesia. On rare occasions,
endarterectomy can cause a stroke or heart attack to occur.
What happens after treatment for the condition?
Generally, a person recovers from a TIA with no further
problems. However, it is important to contact the healthcare provider for follow-up, since the TIA may be a warning sign of an upcoming stroke.
How is the condition monitored?
Monitoring is related to the cause of the transient ischemic attack. For
instance, those with clots in their heart need repeat blood tests, such as a
to monitor the effects of medications used to thin the blood. Since a TIA is a
significant indicator that the person is at risk for stroke, any new or
worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.
Author:Tim Allen, MD
Editor:Ballenberg, Sally, BS
Reviewer:Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN