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How to Recognize a Mini-Stroke and What to Do

Graphic depicts symptoms of stroke.

Dear Savvy Senior,
How can a person know if they've had a minor stroke? My 72-year-old mother had a spell a few weeks ago where she suddenly felt dizzy for no apparent reason and had trouble walking and speaking, but it went away, and she seems fine now.
--Concerned Son

Dear Concerned,
The way you're describing it, it's very possible that your mom had a "mini-stroke" also known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA), and if she hasn't already done so she needs to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Each year, around 250,000 Americans have a mini-stroke, but less than half of them realize what's happening. That's because the symptoms are usually fleeting - lasting only a few minutes, up to an hour or two - bcausing most people to ignore them or brush them off as no big deal. But anyone who has had a mini-stroke is much more likely to have a full-blown stroke, which can cause long-term paralysis, impaired memory, loss of speech or vision, and even death.

A mini-stroke is caused by a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain and can be a warning sign that a major stroke may soon be coming. That's why mini-strokes need to be treated like emergencies.

Who's Vulnerable?
A person is more likely to suffer a TIA or stroke if they are overweight or inactive, have high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol or diabetes. Other factors that boost the risks are age (over 60), smoking, heart disease, atrial fibrillation and having a family history of stroke. Men also have a greater risk for stroke than women, and African Americans and Hispanics are at higher risk than those of other races.

Warning Signs
The symptoms of a mini-stroke are the same as those of a full-blown stroke, but can be subtle and short-lived, and they don't leave any permanent damage. They include any one or combination of the following:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause.

The easiest way to identify a stroke is to use the F.A.S.T. test to identify the symptoms.

F (Face): Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
A (Arm): Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S (Speech): Ask the person to say a simple sentence. Is their speech
slurred?
T (Time): If you observe any of these signs of stroke, call 911.

Get Help
If these warning signs sound like what happened to your mom, but they went away, she needs to go to the emergency room or nearby stroke center.

If the doctor suspects a TIA, he or she will run a series of tests to determine what caused it and assess her risk of a future stroke. Once the cause has been determined, the goal of treatment is to correct the abnormality and prevent a full-blown stroke. Depending on the cause(s), her doctor may prescribe medication to reduce the tendency for blood to clot or may recommend surgery or a balloon procedure (angioplasty).

For more information on mini-strokes and how to recognize one, visit the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association at StrokeAssociation.org.

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