Don’t Write Off Symptoms of a Mini-Stroke, From the December 2015 Harvard Heart Letter

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Ignoring the warning signs of a ministroke can lead to a major stroke at a later time. People should be evaluated right away for symptoms such as speech and vision problems or weakness in an arm or leg.

People may mistakenly attribute symptoms of a transient ischemic attack (TIA), also known as a "mini-stroke," to another problem such as a "trick knee" or low blood sugar. But doing so can have serious consequences, according to the December 2015 Harvard Heart Letter.

A TIA is a problem in the blood vessels of the brain that causes ischemia, a temporary decrease in blood flow, to a certain brain region. The symptoms mirror those of a stroke and include:

  •     sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg on one side of the body
  •     temporary loss of vision in one eye, or double vision
  •     trouble speaking or understanding others
  •     loss of coordination when walking
  •     dizziness and loss of balance.

“A person who has a TIA has had ischemia but has ‘ducked the bullet’ because there was no lasting damage to the brain. But the same underlying causes are still present and are very likely to cause a stroke in the near future, ” says Dr. Louis Caplan, professor of neurology at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Stroke and TIA symptoms can vary widely depending on the part of the brain that is affected. To further complicate matters, other neurological disruptions such as migraines, minor seizures, and low blood sugar can mimic TIA symptoms. The distinguishing feature is that a TIA or stroke stems from impaired blood flow in one particular blood vessel in the brain. Therefore, the effects are most likely to be localized to specific brain functions, such as speech or vision, or to cause isolated weakness in one limb or side of the body. In contrast, conditions that mimic a TIA tend to create multiple or more widespread neurological effects, including fainting and generalized tingling in the arms and legs

Because it can be difficult to distinguish problems resulting from reduced blood flow versus other brain disruptions, Dr. Caplan warns people to not just ignore the incident or attempt self-diagnosis. Instead, the best action is to be evaluated at a hospital TIA clinic if there's one nearby, or to go to the emergency room to be checked out as soon as possible.

Read the full-length article: " Don't be fooled by TIA symptoms"

Also in the December 2015 issue of the Harvard Heart Letter:

  •     Cholesterol: What’s diet got to do with it?
  •     Optimal blood pressure: A moving target
  •     Apps, texts, and sensors for heart health

The Harvard Heart Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $20 per year. Subscribe at or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).


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Kristen Rapoza
Harvard Health Publications
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