TIA and Minor Stroke

Understanding of transient ischaemic attack (TIA) and minor stroke

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 we interviewed 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 stroke. Some people found it frightening to realise that they had experienced a form of stroke, and some people were confused by the different terms that were used. People were given varying levels of information about what happens when you have a TIA or minor stroke, and some used the internet to find out more. Others preferred not to get too involved in the details, or found it too complicated to absorb.
For some people, the use of the terms ‘mini stroke’ or ‘minor stroke’ could feel frightening because they viewed strokes as potentially life threatening and very serious.
Some people had already heard the term, especially where a family member may have had one in the past. Some found the word ‘transient’ reassuring because it indicated the temporary nature of what had happened to them.
The definition of a TIA is that the symptoms last for up to but no longer than 24 hours, and generally people fully recover, as did both Martyn and Adrian (above). However, a few people we interviewed who were told they had had a TIA were left with on-going symptoms such as limb weakness, speech slurring, disturbance of vision. Sometimes people have some residual brain damage after a TIA but no persisting symptoms.
In many cases an explanation of what happens during a TIA or minor stroke was given to the person whilst they were being treated, either by their GP, an emergency doctor, a nurse, or a specialist consultant. The people we interviewed had varying levels of understanding of what happens during a TIA or minor stroke. Not everyone could remember the explanation they had been given, some people could not remember being told much about it at all, and some people felt they did not need to know the ‘technical details’. Volunteer organisations and support groups were also a valued source of information (see Resources).
Gilly pointed out that it could be very difficult to take in all the information that is being given to you when you are still experiencing or recovering from symptoms, particularly where there has been some impairment to the brain even for a short while.
Some people had been given leaflets and information packs during their stay in hospital, which could be useful to read through at home, and helped to reassure them about what had happened.
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Some people we spoke to felt it was important to find out more information about TIAs and strokes once they had their diagnosis. Quite a few used the internet to search for information. Some were used to using the internet or had experience of using search engines, and so could find information relatively easily, particularly on websites published by the NHS, and support organisations such as Stroke Association or Different Strokes (see ‘Resources’).

Others felt that using the internet could be confusing. Some thought it better to ‘soldier on’ without lots of technical details or information about the condition.
Often people remembered some but not all of what they were told about TIAs. Rich remembers the fact that a TIA is seen as a warning sign that you could go on to have a stroke.
Getting a diagnosis of a TIA shocked some people because they had always thought that stroke only affected elderly people. Some younger people were surprised to find that strokes and TIAs can occur at any age. Both Clare and Yvonne were surprised to have been diagnosed with a TIA in their late 40’s. Clare cried when she realised what had happened to her and said “I’ve had a stroke….but I’m 48!” On the other hand, Brian, who had a TIA at age 84, felt that it was wrong to see it as an age thing. Michelle, who was in her early 20’s when she had a TIA, followed a few months later by a full stroke felt that the medical staff were not equipped to give her the information and support she needed because they did not expect to be dealing with someone her age.
Some of the people we interviewed had taken part in a research study that was being conducted at their local hospital and felt that they had got more information and a better understanding of TIA through talking to the research nurses and consultants. Some felt that the researchers had more time to spend explaining things to patients than GPs or hospital consultants generally. (See also Taking part in TIA research‘.)
A few people commented that it could often feel as though GPs and hospital staff just didn’t have enough time to explain things adequately and they felt they didn’t want to take up the doctor’s valuable time by asking lots of questions. Several people said that it was important to ensure that you ask questions, although some people could find this intimidating.

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Last reviewed June 2017.
Last updated August 2013


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