Carolyn Howard-Johnson was at the base camp of Mount Everest researching local monasteries on the internet when it happened. The life-long writer and author of several books could no longer read.
“I suddenly noticed that I wasn’t understanding what I was seeing on the computer screen,” she recalls.
The feeling soon passed and Howard-Johnson went to bed that evening without mentioning the episode to anyone else in the camp. The next morning at breakfast, after making an off-hand comment to their guide and consulting the expedition doctor via telephone, Howard-Johnson found herself on an emergency flight to a hospital in Beijing.
Hours later, the doctors told her that she had suffered a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which is often referred to as a “mini-stroke.”
What Is a Mini-Stroke?
A mini-stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is temporarily obstructed, usually for only a few seconds or minutes. When compared with a full-blown stroke, a TIA may seem like a minor incident, but these events can have a lasting impact on a person’s physical and mental health.
“Research suggests that one or more mini-strokes can progressively interfere with cognition and other brain functions that support balance, strength and gait,” says Dr. William Likosky, a board-certified neurologist and medical director of the Swedish Neuroscience Institute’s Stroke Program.
Furthermore, mini-strokes can also alert patients and doctors to an impending major stroke. According to Dr. Ivan Mikolaenko, FAAN, a board-certified neurointensivist based in New York, “Ten to 15 percent of people will have a major stroke within three months of experiencing a TIA.”
The Sneaky Symptoms of TIAs
Most mini-strokes happen quickly and receive little attention, which makes them particularly dangerous.
“It wasn’t that severe and it went away fast,” says Howard-Johnson of her TIA in the Himalayas. Her primary symptoms included slight dizziness and a temporary disruption in her reading comprehension. The experience was certainly odd, but she didn’t think much of it. Howard-Johnson’s subtle signs came and went within minutes, but in some people the symptoms linger a little longer.
For example, Joe Parsons, founder of PFS Funding, a residential mortgage brokerage company, was doing his daily crossword one Tuesday when he first noticed his writing was a bit sloppier than usual. Brushing it off, he went to work and tried to ignore a slight weakness in his leg that produced an uncharacteristic limp when he walked.
Parsons’ leg gradually weakened further and his hand became increasingly unsteady. After 48 hours, he finally decided to contact his insurance company’s on-call nurse hotline. The nurse told him that he was likely suffering from a stroke and that he needed to find someone to drive him to the emergency room immediately.
The Importance of Early Treatment
If left untreated, a mini-stroke may resolve on its own but it’s difficult to know how serious the circumstances are without a thorough medical workup. A person experiencing classic stroke symptoms like blurry vision, disorientation, sudden headache, numbness and weakness in the face or extremities, and slurred speech should always seek medical treatment as soon as possible. Another telltale sign of a stroke is when any of these symptoms occur on only one side of the body.
Familiarizing yourself with these symptoms will allow you to act quickly, which is crucial for avoiding permanent brain damage. Parsons’ doctor said that he was lucky he came in when he did. If he had waited much longer, the blockage in his brain could have caused irreversible harm.
Research has shown that people who receive treatment for a mini-stroke within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms could decrease their risk for having a major stroke in the near future by up to 80 percent. Fortunately, the treatment for TIAs is relatively simple. After testing, patients typically receive a combination of drugs meant to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and prevent clotting.
This treatment is important for remedying current symptoms and preventing additional strokes. Even if a major stroke is avoided, recurring TIAs can have a cumulative negative effect on one’s brain health and cognitive function. In severe cases, vascular dementia may result from untreated cerebrovascular events.
A Stroke of any Magnitude Can Be Life-Altering
While a person’s risk for having a stroke of any sort increases with age, even younger, healthy people need to take mini-strokes seriously. Smokers, diabetics, those with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and a personal and/or family history of stroke or heart disease are at the highest risk.
It’s hard to consider a TIA as a blessing, frightening as it is, but a mini-stroke can provide the necessary wake-up call that immediate medical attention and lifestyle changes are necessary. A minor warning of an impending cerebrovascular incident can present an invaluable opportunity.
Interestingly, Howard-Johnson had just passed a rigorous physical examination to receive clearance for her expedition to Everest. Nonetheless, the experience taught her to take her health more seriously. Both she and Parsons have improved their exercise regimens. Now that they know what a TIA looks and feels like, both also claim that they are far more likely to forgo any hesitations and get to the hospital if they feel something is wrong.