‘Transient ischemic attacks,’ which can be serious, may need a new name

Two neurologists argue that calling transient ischemic attacks what they are, minor strokes, could prompt patients to seek the help they need more quickly. (Photo: Envato Elements)
On a recent afternoon in Bastrop, Texas, Janet Splawn was walking her dog, Petunia, a Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix. She said something to her grandson, who lives with her and had accompanied her on the stroll. But he couldn’t follow; her speech had suddenly become incoherent.اضافة اعلان

“It was garbled, like mush,” Splawn recalled a few days later from a hospital in Austin. “But I got mad at him for not understanding. It was kind of an eerie feeling.”

Wanda Mercer, who had a minor stroke four years ago, at Mueller Lake Park in Austin, Texas, on April 7, 2022. (Photo: NYTimes) 

People do not take chances when 87-year-olds develop alarming symptoms. Her grandson drove her to the nearest hospital emergency room, which then transferred her to a larger hospital for a neurology consultation.

The diagnosis: a transient ischemic attack, or TIA.

For decades, patients have been relieved to hear that phrase. The sudden onset of symptoms like weakness or numbness (often on one side), loss of vision (often in one eye), and trouble with language (speaking, understanding, or both) — if resolved in a few minutes — is considered “transient.” Whew.

However, in a recent editorial in JAMA, two neurologists called for doctors and patients to abandon the term transient ischemic attack. It is too reassuring, they argued, and too likely to lead someone with passing symptoms to wait until the next morning to call a doctor or let a week go by before arranging an appointment. That is dangerous.

Better, they said, to call a TIA what it is: a stroke. More specifically, a minor ischemic stroke. (Almost 90 percent of strokes are ischemic, meaning they result from a clot that reduces blood flow to the brain.)

Until recently, TIAs “were played down,” said Dr J. Donald Easton, a neurologist who recently retired from the University of California, San Francisco, and an author of the editorial. “The person thinks, ‘Oh, it’s over. It goes away, so all is well.’ But all is not well. There’s trouble to come, and it’s coming soon.”

The advent of brain imaging — first CT scans in the late 1970s, then the more precise MRIs in the 1990s — has shown that many TIAs, sometimes called mini-strokes, cause visible and permanent brain damage.

“Very quickly, nerve cells and their connections start to die,” Easton explained. And the risk of a subsequent stroke, possibly a more severe one, is highest within the first 24 to 48 hours.

He and his co-author on the editorial, Dr S. Claiborne Johnston, a neurologist at the University of Texas at Austin and former dean of its medical school, want people who experience these episodes to head for an emergency room, stat.

“We’re trying to get rid of a term that has comforted people in the past,” Johnston said. Because “your brain is likely injured and you don’t want it to be injured further, you need to come in right away.”

Dr Jeffrey Saver, a stroke neurologist at UCLA, called the proposed change in nomenclature “an intriguing, radical and potentially good idea.” The transient ischemic attack name dates to a 1975 report from the National Institutes of Health. So, he said, “this upends 50 years of classifying low-blood-flow events in the brain.”

But will health care professionals change their terminology? “The TIA concept is deeply entrenched in medical thinking,” Saver said. “It’s the kind of idea that will gather adherents slowly.”

He supports the change, however, because “it reflects what we’ve learned over the last two decades — even very brief episodes of low blood flow to the brain lead to damage” and because calling such episodes “minor strokes” may lead patients to respond more quickly.

“The treatments for ischemic stroke are very time-dependent,” he explained. “Every minute counts towards getting a better outcome.”

In an emergency room or specialized stroke center, patients undergo a brain scan to be sure their symptoms resulted from a minor stroke rather than from a condition that can mimic it, like a seizure or a migraine.

Patients who have suffered minor strokes usually start taking two drugs, typically aspirin and clopidogrel, which prevent clotting. (Some may need other medications or a surgical procedure, like a stent placement.)

After three weeks, when the highest risk for another stroke has passed, most continue with just one drug, usually a low-dose aspirin. “It’s easy, it’s cheap, and it’s well-tolerated,” Johnston said.

Twenty years ago, when Johnston led an early study of stroke risk after a TIA, 10.5 percent of patients suffered another stroke within three months; half of those occurred within the first two days.

That rate has declined substantially, thanks to improved treatments for stroke, lower smoking rates, and the widespread use of cholesterol and blood pressure drugs and blood thinners. Recent studies in The New England Journal of Medicine put the risk of a subsequent stroke, coronary syndrome, or death after a TIA at 6.4 percent in the first year and another 6.4 percent in years two through five.

For neurologists, however, that is still high, given how devastating a major stroke can be. A name change for TIAs might lead to quicker responses that further reduce the rate of subsequent stroke risk.

Patients treated appropriately for minor strokes will remain at a higher-than-normal risk for another stroke, especially in the first year, Saver said. But “by two or three years out, the risk is just a little higher than for folks who never had a TIA or a minor stroke.”

Wanda Mercer, for example, had a minor stroke four years ago, at age 66. An administrator at the University of Texas, she had donated blood during her lunch break, then fainted in an Austin restaurant. The staff called 911, but in the emergency room, everything seemed normal; she went back to work and regaled co-workers with her noontime adventure.

Suddenly, “I couldn’t find my words,” Mercer said. “I couldn’t articulate.” The problem lasted only seconds, but colleagues recognized a possible stroke and sent her back to the emergency room, where an MRI revealed tissue damage. She has taken a statin, which is a cholesterol-lowering drug, and aspirin ever since.

“I’m lucky,” she said. “I haven’t had one adverse symptom since.”

Read more Health
Jordan News