Health Information and Tools >  Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)
Facebook Tweet Email Share

Main Content

Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)

Condition Basics

What is a transient ischemic attack (TIA)?

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is the mildest form of a stroke. It happens when blood flow to part of the brain is blocked or reduced , often by a blood clot. After a short time, blood flows again and symptoms go away. Symptoms are the same as a stroke but don't last long and typically don't cause lasting damage.

What causes it?

A TIA happens when there's a blockage in a blood vessel that supplies blood to part of the brain. The blockage can form when blood vessels are damaged by high blood pressure or high cholesterol. A blood clot can also travel to the brain from another location, like the heart or blood vessels in the neck.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of a TIA are the same as a stroke. The most common symptoms are:

  • Weakness or loss of power (sometimes described as numbness) in the face or an arm or leg.
  • Loss of vision on one side.
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech, which can make people appear confused.

Other symptoms are:

  • Tingling or “pins and needles” or loss of sensation on one side of the body.
  • Loss of balance or coordination, including loss of walking balance.
  • Nausea or headache may occur as well.

Symptoms usually last for 10 to 20 minutes.

How is it diagnosed?

Because TIA lasts only a short time (it’s transient), you are recovered from TIA by the time you see a doctor.
Your doctor will ask you about your medical history and does a physical examination. You may have tests, like a CT scan of the head or an MRI scan of your head and brain arteries. These tests check for damage to the brain and other diseases that might act like a TIA. Other tests are often done to find the cause of the TIA.

How is a TIA treated?

A TIA may happen before a more severe or permanent stroke. If you've had a TIA, your doctor will start you on medicines to help prevent a stroke. If tests show that the blood vessels (carotid arteries) in your neck are too narrow, you may need a procedure to open them up. This can help prevent blood clots that block blood flow to your brain.

Health Tools

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
Actionsets are designed to help people take an active role in managing a health condition.

Cause

A TIA happens when there is a blockage in a blood vessel that supplies blood flow to part of the brain. The blockage can form when blood vessels are damaged by high blood pressure or high cholesterol. A blood clot can also travel to the brain from another location, such as the heart or blood vessels in the neck.

Brain cells are affected within seconds of the blockage. This causes symptoms in the parts of the body that are controlled by those cells.

Sometimes a TIA is caused by a sharp drop in blood pressure that reduces blood flow to the brain. This is called a "low-flow" TIA. It is not as common as other types.

What Increases Your Risk

A risk factor is anything that makes you more likely to have a particular health problem. Some of the risk factors for a TIA are things you can treat or change (modifiable risk factors). These include:

  • Having a health problem such as high blood pressure (hypertension), atrial fibrillation, diabetes, or high cholesterol.
  • Smoking.
  • Drinking too much alcohol.
  • Being overweight.
  • Physical inactivity.
  • Choosing a healthy diet.

Some of the risk factors are things you can't change (non-modifiable) include:

  • Being older. The risk of TIA increases with age.
  • Your genetics or family history. Your risk is greater if a parent, brother, or sister has had a stroke or TIA.
  • Your sex. Risks are different for men and women.
  • Your past medical history. Having had a previous TIA or stroke means you have a higher risk of these problems in the future.

Prevention

Here are some ways to reduce your risk of having another TIA.

  • Work with your doctor to treat any health problems you have. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, atrial fibrillation, and diabetes all raise your chances of having a stroke.
  • Take your medicine exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse call line if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Have a healthy lifestyle.
    • Do not smoke or allow others to smoke around you. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor. Smoking makes a stroke more likely.
    • Lose weight if you need to. A healthy weight will help you keep your heart and body healthy.
    • Be active. Ask your doctor what type and level of activity are safe for you.
    • Eat heart-healthy foods, like fruits, vegetables, and high-fibre foods.
    • Limit alcohol to 3 drinks a day for men and 2 drinks a day for women.

Learn more

Watch

Symptoms

Symptoms of a TIA are the same as symptoms of a stroke. But symptoms of a TIA don't last very long. Most of the time, they go away in 10 to 20 minutes. The most common symptoms are:

  • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body. Some people describe weakness or loss of power as numbness or “My arm went dead or limp.”
  • Sudden loss or change of vision on one side.
  • Sudden trouble speaking or understanding speech or writing.

Other symptoms are:

  • Sudden tingling or “pins and needles” or loss of sensation in your face, arm, or leg, on only one side of the body.
  • Sudden problems with coordination or balance, including loss of walking balance.
  • Headache or nausea.

If you have any of these symptoms, call 911 or other emergency services right away. If you continue to have symptoms, you are having a stroke and need medical attention now. If your symptoms go away in minutes, you have had a TIA and should see a doctor the same day.

Ask your family, friends, and co-workers to learn the signs of a TIA. They may notice these signs before you do. Make sure they know to call 911 if these signs appear.

What Happens

A TIA usually doesn't cause any lasting problems. But it is a serious warning sign of a possible stroke in the future. If you have other medical conditions such as coronary artery disease or atherosclerosis, you may also have an increased risk for a heart attack. Talk to your doctor about your risk. Understanding your risk will help you and your doctor plan your treatment options.

You can do a lot to lower your chance of having another TIA or a stroke. Medicines can help, and you may also need to make lifestyle changes.

Watch

When to Call a Doctor

Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you have signs of a stroke, such as:

  • Sudden weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, on only one side of your body. Some people describe weakness or loss of power as numbness or “My arm went dead or limp.”
  • Sudden loss or change of vision on one side.
  • Sudden trouble speaking or understanding speech or writing.

Call your doctor now if you have:

  • Recently had symptoms of a transient ischemic attack (TIA), even if the symptoms are gone now. Ideally, you should see a doctor the same day.
  • Any signs of bleeding and you are taking aspirin or other medicines that prevent blood clotting.

Call your doctor today if you think you have had a TIA in the past and have not yet talked with your doctor about your symptoms.

Examinations and Tests

You need to be checked by a doctor the same day if you have had or are having a TIA. Your doctor will ask you about your medical history and do a physical examination. The examination results may be normal if the symptoms have already gone away.

If a TIA is suspected, the doctor may want to do tests. The tests include a CT scan of the head or an MRI to check for brain damage and look for other diseases that might act like a TIA or stroke.

More tests are often done to find the cause of the TIA. This may include:

  • A CT scan or magnetic resonance (MR) angiogram to look at the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain.
  • An ultrasound of the carotid arteries to look at the blood vessels in the neck.
  • A formal detailed angiogram (digital subtraction angiography) of the brain arteries.
  • An electrocardiogram (ECG, EKG), Holter monitor, or longer-term heart rhythm monitor to check for heart rhythm problems that can lead to blood clots.
  • An echocardiogram (echo) to look at heart function, the heart valves, or other heart problems.
  • Certain blood tests to look for other health conditions that may put you at risk of stroke.

Learn more

Watch

Treatment Overview

If you've had a TIA, you may need more testing and treatment after you get checked by your doctor. If you have a high risk of stroke, you may have to stay in the hospital for treatment.

Your treatment for a TIA may include taking medicines to prevent blood clots or a stroke, or having surgery to reopen narrow arteries.

Self-Care

Medicines

  • Be safe with medicines. Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse call line if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • If you take a blood thinner, such as aspirin, be sure you get instructions about how to take your medicine safely. Blood thinners can cause serious bleeding problems.
  • Call your doctor or nurse call line if you are not able to take your medicines for any reason.
  • Do not take any over-the-counter medicines or natural health products without talking to your doctor first.
  • If you take birth control pills or hormone therapy, talk to your doctor. Ask if these treatments are right for you.

Lifestyle changes

  • Do not smoke. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines.
  • Be active. If your doctor recommends it, get more exercise. Walking is a good choice. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk every day. You also may want to swim, bike, or do other activities. Try to do at least 2½ hours of moderate activity each week. It is fine to be active in blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your day and week.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods. These include fruits, vegetables, high-fibre foods, fish, lean meats, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and soy products, and foods that are low in sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Lose weight if you need to.
  • Limit alcohol. Ask your doctor how much, if any, is safe for you.

Staying healthy

  • Manage other health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
  • Get the influenza (flu) vaccine every year.

Learn more

Watch

Medicines

Your doctor will probably prescribe several medicines after you've had a TIA. Medicines to prevent blood clots are often used. This is because blood clots can cause TIAs and strokes.

The types of medicines that prevent clotting are:

  • Antiplatelets.
  • Anticoagulants.

Medicines to lower cholesterol and blood pressure are also used to prevent TIAs and strokes.

Antiplatelet medicines

Antiplatelet medicines keep platelets in the blood from sticking together. They include:

  • Aspirin.
  • Aspirin combined with dipyridamole (Aggrenox).
  • Other antiplatelet medicines, such as clopidogrel (Plavix) and ticagrelor (Brillinta).

Anticoagulants

Anticoagulants such as warfarin (for example, Coumadin), apixaban (Elliquis), edoxaban (Lixiana), rivaroxaban (Xarelto), and dabigatran (Pradaxa) prevent blood clots from forming. And they keep existing blood clots from getting bigger.

You may need to take this type of medicine after a stroke if you have atrial fibrillation or another condition that makes you more likely to have another stroke.

Cholesterol medicines

Statins, such as atorvastatin (Lipitor) or rosuvastatin (Crestor), and other medicines, such as ezetimibe (Ezetrol), lower cholesterol and the risk for a TIA or stroke.

Blood pressure medicines

If you have high blood pressure, your doctor may want you to take medicines to lower it. Blood pressure medicines include:

  • Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs).
  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors.
  • Beta-blockers.
  • Calcium channel blockers.
  • Diuretics.

Learn more

Surgery

If you have serious blockage in the carotid arteries in your neck, you may need a carotid endarterectomy. During this surgery, a surgeon removes plaque buildup in the carotid arteries.

Carotid artery angioplasty and stenting are sometimes done instead of surgery to prevent a TIA or stroke. It's also called carotid angioplasty and stenting. A doctor uses a thin tube called a catheter. The tube is put into an artery in your groin. It is threaded up to the carotid artery in your neck. The doctor then uses a tiny balloon to enlarge the narrowed part of the artery and places a metal stent to keep the artery open.

When a procedure is being considered after a TIA, the benefits and risks must be carefully weighed because the procedures may cause a stroke. Factors in the decision about having a procedure include your age, prior overall health, and current condition.

Learn more

Watch

Credits

Adaptation Date: 2/23/2022

Adapted By: Alberta Health Services

Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services

Adapted with permission from copyrighted materials from Healthwise, Incorporated (Healthwise). This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any warranty and is not responsible or liable for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.