TIA and Minor Stroke

Symptoms of transient ischaemic attack (TIA)

The term ‘TIA’ is an abbreviation for ‘transient ischaemic attack’, (sometimes also known as ‘mini stroke’, but this phrase causes some confusion). The definition of a TIA is a sudden onset problem with the functioning of one part of the brain. It is caused by a temporary disruption in the blood supply to part of the brain. TIA symptoms occur rapidly and last a relatively short time but can last up to 24 hours and when they are over, it usually causes no permanent injury to the brain.

A ‘minor stroke’ is a longer-lasting problem, with mild but persisting symptoms. Whilst many people had heard of stroke, not everyone had heard the name TIA before they experienced one and did not always fully understand the difference between a TIA, minor stroke and a full stroke.

People we interviewed described the onset of one or several symptoms. These commonly included slurred speech or being unable to talk; numbness or paralysis; visual disturbances; and a feeling of disorientation. Not everyone experienced this, but those who did described this last symptom as feeling ‘disconnected’ from what was going on around them, as if they were in a dream, having an out of body experience, or hearing voices distantly. One person (see Adrian below) likened it to having his head in a goldfish bowl.
For many people the first indication that something was wrong was finding that they were unable to speak or think clearly, and came on out of the blue with no warning.
In some cases people described losing spatial awareness and the ability to judge distances.
Losing the ability to speak and think left people feeling scared and confused about what was happening to them. People described the feeling of wanting to say something but not being able to get the words out, or of thinking of what they wanted to say but not being able to articulate their thoughts coherently. Many people found this experience to be quite frightening and upsetting.
A common symptom that often came on suddenly and without warning was numbness or tingling sensations, in the face or limbs. This could be relatively minor – likened to pins and needles, or more severe loss of feeling. Weakness could also occur at the same time.
Often when this type of temporary numbness occurred people were unsure about what was happening as the symptoms can seem to be relatively trivial. One man described the way in which he woke up and his arm and hand were numb, as though he’d been lying on it whilst asleep and he’d woken up with pins and needles (see Phillip above). In some cases the loss of movement was more severe resulting in temporary paralysis which could feel very frightening especially as it came on suddenly and without warning.
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A few people said they collapsed after losing consciousness, which sometimes meant that they had very little memory about what had actually happened.
Whilst this loss of movement was usually temporary or even fleeting, there were some people who found that their mobility was impaired for some weeks afterwards.
Visual disturbance was another common indication that something was wrong. Most of the visual problems that people experienced lasted for a very short while and their vision has not been affected on a long term basis. Several people experienced visual disturbance whilst they had been watching TV in the evening, maybe noticing that the picture seemed out of focus or fuzzy. One man described the way in which he was looking out of the window and suddenly everything seemed ‘fuzzy round the edges’.
Other symptoms that people experienced included headaches, a feeling of weight or pressure around the chest and heart (see Keith above) short term memory loss, loss of hearing, feeling lethargic, or just a general feeling that things weren’t quite right.
Generally the symptoms lasted only a short time, and things returned to normal fairly quickly. Many of the people we interviewed said that they weren’t sure whether what was happening to them was serious, as their symptoms could easily be mistaken for something else. For example, a headache could be associated with the onset of migraine, or light headed dizzy feelings could just be a sign of tiredness (see ‘Delay in seeking help for a TIA’). Visual disturbance was something that people least associated with stroke-like symptoms - many knew about paralysis of limbs or face and speech loss but did not realise that visual problems could also be a sign of a TIA or stroke. A lot of people thought some of the symptoms were similar to being drunk, because of the slurring of words and loss of control.
Many of the people we interviewed had not heard of TIA before they had their episode, and were shocked to discover that they had indeed experienced a mild form of stroke. Some people were able to recognise that something potentially serious was happening to them through their knowledge of the FAST campaign that has been on TV (see ‘Understanding TIA/Minor stroke’), or through knowledge of friends and relatives who had suffered from strokes, but many people commented that their symptoms were not as easily recognisable as those illustrated on the TV advert.
Most people recovered completely after their TIA or minor stroke, but some were left with symptoms of varying levels of severity (see ‘Life after TIA/ minor stroke).
Whilst for some, the TIA episode was a ‘one-off’, there were people who experienced a second, or even a series of episodes. Some people described similar symptoms on each occasion, whereas others had different symptoms and did not necessarily realise the episodes were connected.
After being diagnosed with a TIA some people felt that when they looked back, they may have experienced small episodes before that they hadn’t realised might have been either a TIA, or if not, could have been a ‘warning sign’ of a more serious episode.

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Last reviewed June 2017.
Last updated
June 2017.


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