Not sure if your symptoms are due to a stroke or TIA? Here's how to tell.

strokes and mini-strokesSymptoms of a stroke and a transient ischemic attack or TIA, are often similar. So although the consequences of a stroke can be much more serious, it may be hard to tell what's going on in your brain and when you need immediate medical attention.

Understanding the similarities and differences between strokes and TIAs can help you better determine what may be happening if you have certain symptoms – and what you should do about it if you do.

What happens during strokes and TIAs?

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is disrupted. This may happen because of a blockage in a blood vessel that supplies blood to the brain due to a blood clot or build-up of plaque. Or it may occur if a blood vessel in the brain ruptures. During a TIA, there is a temporary disruption of blood supply to the brain which causes symptoms that are similar to a stroke, but the disruption is brief so symptoms usually resolve quickly.

How are strokes and TIAs similar?

In both cases, something happens suddenly to the brain that causes symptoms such as:

  • Numbness or weakness on one side of the body
  • Sudden, severe headache
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Difficulty seeing in one or both eyes or double vision
  • Dizziness, loss of balance or lack of coordination

Since it is hard to tell at first whether someone is having a stroke or TIA, they should both be considered medical emergencies.

How are strokes and TIAs different?

The main difference between a stroke and TIA is the duration and severity of symptoms. Since blood flow to the brain is disrupted during a stroke, symptoms will continue or worsen until healthy blood flow is restored. The longer it takes for this to happen, the more likelihood that brain tissue will be damaged, causing permanent disability.

On the other hand, symptoms of a TIA usually go away relatively quickly and are not as severe. This is because they are the result of a disruption in blood flow that is only temporary and brief, so it doesn't damage brain tissue or cause permanent disability. Symptoms may only last a few minutes and usually resolve in less than an hour, although they can linger for up to 24 hours.

Why is it so important to seek medical attention if you have a TIA?

Symptoms of strokes and TIAs are so similar that it can be difficult to tell which one is occurring. And since time is of the essence when someone has a stroke, you don't want to wait around to see if the symptoms resolve themselves. The longer it takes for a stroke victim to receive emergency medical care, the more likelihood they will experience disability.

Additionally, a TIA is usually a warning sign that a person is at an increased risk of stroke. About 1 in 3 people who have a mini-stroke wind up having a stroke in the future, and the risk of stroke is especially high in the first 48 hours following a TIA.

If you have a TIA, you will likely be sent for tests to help determine what caused the event. You may also be prescribed medication, lifestyle changes or procedures to lower your chance of having a stroke in the future.

What should you do if you have symptoms of a stroke or TIA?

If you experience any symptoms that indicate you may be having a stroke or TIA, don't wait around to figure out which one it is. Call 911. The faster you get emergency medical attention, the better.

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Date Last Reviewed: March 18, 2024

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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