Can a mini-stroke be diagnosed?


Q: My mother described an incident that sounded like a stroke but which left her only a bit dazed. I think she may have had a mini stroke. Should she see a doctor as soon as possible?

A: You haven't related exactly what your mother described, but if any of the details do match what you have heard about strokes, by all means she should see her doctor at once.

Coincidentally, last week's column concerned a man who had not seen a doctor in years and had been experiencing vague pains. Unlike that instance, however, your mother may well have had a mini-stroke, known medically as a transient ischemic attack, or TIA.

While nobody, of course, welcomes any form of stroke-like symptoms, a TIA gives you all the warning you should need of an impending stroke without any of the stroke's debilitating effects. Possible symptoms are identical: sudden difficulty in seeing or speaking, disorientation, numbness or weakness, and/or severe headache. Particularly telltale is when the problems occur on only one side of the body.

Such symptoms, which typically last only a few seconds, do not absolutely indicate that a TIA has occurred. But should your mother have experienced a TIA, you have no absolutely no way to predict how soon afterward a real stroke could occur. One cold fact: Many strokes occur within days or weeks after a TIA.

Depending on how many of the following questions are answered "yes," someone who has had a TIA might need to rush to the doctor more quickly than the next person:

  • Older than 60?
  • Have heart disease, diabetes or high cholesterol?
  • Stroke or TIA in your family medical history?

It may also help you and your mother to know that the National Stroke Association (NSA) recently conducted a survey concluding that many people ignore TIA symptoms. The NSA's survey, of 10,112 people selected at random, found that 2.5 percent of the respondents had been told they have had a TIA. Furthermore, 8 percent of the respondents might possibly have experienced a TIA in the past--but had not since gone to see a doctor.

Unfortunately, not only should your mother see a doctor, but you should probably accompany her to ensure her doctor takes her complaint seriously. The reason? The NSA also reports that a related survey of 200 primary-care physicians found that many of them do not typically ask the questions they need to or order the necessary tests. True, a TIA produces no lasting evidence on a brain scan. But the event, after all, could also have been a small stroke.

It's hard to consider a TIA as a blessing, frightening as it is. No matter how unsettling are the symptoms, though, what a TIA does do is provide the necessary wake-up call--that immediate medical attention is vital. Ideally, everyone in danger of a stroke would receive such an advance warning.

Connolly is President and CEO of Castle Connolly Medical Ltd., America's trusted source for finding top doctors. He has an extensive background in management and healthcare. He was President of New York Medical College and a Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine.

View full profile

You May Also Like

Free AgingCare Guides

Get the latest care advice and articles delivered to your inbox!