I had a stroke like episode—what do I do?
Nitin K Sethi, MD
Assistant Professor of Neurology
New York-Presbyterian Hospital
Weill Cornell Medical Center
New York, NY 10065
I frequently see patients admitted to the hospital for evaluation of a suspected stroke like episode. Most of these patients are “normal” with no neurological signs and symptoms (the presenting symptom has invariably resolved by the time of their admission to an acute care facility).
So what are these stroke like episodes which scare patients and doctors alike leading to admission to a hospital and invariably a battery of tests including but not limited to MRI scans of the brain? Well some may be as vague as an episode of sudden dizziness, difficulty walking or weakness in the arms and legs, others are more restricted-an episode of difficulty speaking (I could speak but my words did not come out right or my speech was slurred as if I was drunk), loss of vision in an eye and so on.
When patients present to the ER or a doctor’s office with a history of such symptoms, they are frequently advised admission to rule out a possible stroke. When people think of stroke, they usually think of someone with weakness of the arm and leg but stroke signs and symptoms can be more subtle. Many patients have what we refer to as transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) prior to the stroke. As the name suggests, TIAs are transient (short lived) episodes of ischemia to the brain. Let me try to explain a TIA with the aid of an example. Let us assume a clot (entangled platelets and cholesterol crystals) breaks from the heart and goes up to the brain via the carotid artery (the carotid artery is one of the main arteries carrying blood to the brain). As it goes up further and further, it may get lodged in the ophthalmic artery (the ophthalmic artery is a branch of the carotid artery and supplies the retina of the eye). Now if the ophthalmic artery gets blocked by the clot there is no blood supply to the retina with resulting loss of vision in that eye (patients frequently complain of a black curtain descending in front of their eye). If the clot breaks by itself and dissolves the vision comes back (we call this transient monocular blindess—transient blindness in one eye). There you have suffered a transient ischemic episode.
There can be other types of TIAs which can involve different blood vessels in the brain and present with a myriad of signs and symptoms such as dizziness, double vision and difficulty speaking. So what is so important about TIAs?
Well put in simple language a TIA may be a warning sign of a future stroke (and by future, I mean in the NEAR future). It is a sign that all is NOT well with the blood vessels of the brain or the heart (either the vessels are slowing getting narrowed or the heart is not functioning well and throwing up small blood clots into the brain). TIAs thus should be aggressively and thoroughly investigated.
What are the stroke risk factors?
How can they be modified?
Does the patient need to be on any blood thinners?
As I frequently explain to my patients and their families
“A TIA IS A CRY OF THE BRAIN, A CRY FOR HELP
IF YOU DO NOT HEED IT IN TIME
YOU RISK HAVING A DEVASTATING STROKE IN THE NEAR FUTURE”