A prompt evaluation of your symptoms is vital in diagnosing the cause of your TIA and deciding on a method of treatment. To help determine the cause of your TIA and to assess your risk of a stroke, your doctor may rely on the following:
Physical examination and tests. Your doctor may check for risk factors of a stroke, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes and high levels of the amino acid homocysteine.
Your doctor may also use a stethoscope to listen for a whooshing sound (bruit) over your arteries that may indicate atherosclerosis. Or your doctor may observe cholesterol fragments or platelet fragments (emboli) in the tiny blood vessels of your retina at the back of your eye during an eye examination using an ophthalmoscope.
- Carotid ultrasonography. A wand-like device (transducer) sends high-frequency sound waves into your neck. After the sound waves pass through your tissue and back, your doctor can analyze images on a screen to look for narrowing or clotting in the carotid arteries.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scanning. CT scanning of your head uses X-ray beams to assemble a composite 3-D look at your brain.
- Computerized tomography angiography (CTA) scanning. Scanning of the head may also be used to noninvasively evaluate the arteries in your neck and brain. CTA scanning uses X-rays similar to a standard CT scan of the head but may also involve injection of a contrast material into a blood vessel.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This procedure, which uses a strong magnetic field, can generate a composite 3-D view of your brain.
- Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA). This is a method of evaluating the arteries in your neck and brain. It uses a strong magnetic field similar to an MRI.
Echocardiography. Your doctor may choose to perform a transthoracic echocardiogram (TTE) or transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE). A TTE involves moving an instrument called a transducer across your chest. The transducer emits sound waves that echo off of different parts of your heart, creating an ultrasound image.
During a TEE, a flexible probe with a transducer built into it is placed in your esophagus — the tube that connects the back of your mouth to your stomach. Because your esophagus is directly behind your heart, clearer, detailed ultrasound images can be created. This allows a better view of some things, such as blood clots, that might not be seen clearly in a traditional echocardiography exam.
Arteriography. This procedure gives a view of arteries in your brain not normally seen in X-ray imaging. A radiologist inserts a thin, flexible tube (catheter) through a small incision, usually in your groin.
The catheter is manipulated through your major arteries and into your carotid or vertebral artery. Then the radiologist injects a dye through the catheter to provide X-ray images of the arteries in your brain. This procedure may be used in selected cases.
Once your doctor has determined the cause of your transient ischemic attack, the goal of treatment is to correct the abnormality and prevent a stroke. Depending on the cause of your TIA, your doctor may prescribe medication to reduce the tendency for blood to clot or may recommend surgery or a balloon procedure (angioplasty).
Doctors use several medications to decrease the likelihood of a stroke after a transient ischemic attack. The medication selected depends on the location, cause, severity and type of TIA. Your doctor may prescribe:
Anti-platelet drugs. These medications make your platelets, one of the circulating blood cell types, less likely to stick together. When blood vessels are injured, sticky platelets begin to form clots, a process completed by clotting proteins in blood plasma.
The most frequently used anti-platelet medication is aspirin. Aspirin is also the least expensive treatment with the fewest potential side effects. An alternative to aspirin is the anti-platelet drug clopidogrel (Plavix).
Your doctor may consider prescribing Aggrenox, a combination of low-dose aspirin and the anti-platelet drug dipyridamole, to reduce blood clotting. The way dipyridamole works is slightly different from aspirin.
Anticoagulants. These drugs include heparin and warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven). They affect clotting-system proteins instead of platelet function. Heparin is used for a short time and warfarin over a longer term.
These drugs require careful monitoring. If atrial fibrillation is present, your doctor may prescribe another type of anticoagulant, dabigatran (Pradaxa).
- Thrombolytic agents. In certain cases, thrombolytic therapy is used to treat an ongoing stroke by dissolving blood clots that are blocking blood flow to the brain. In these situations, the neurologic symptoms and findings will have lasted more than a few minutes and are not improving. The thrombolytic agent alteplase (Activase), also known as a recombinant tissue plasminogen activator, was first approved by the FDA in 1996 to treat strokes within hours of onset.
If you have a moderately or severely narrowed neck (carotid) artery, your doctor may suggest carotid endarterectomy (end-ahr-tur-EK-tuh-me). This preventive surgery clears carotid arteries of fatty deposits (atherosclerotic plaques) before another TIA or stroke can occur. An incision is made to open the artery, the plaques are removed, and the artery is closed.
In selected cases, a procedure called carotid angioplasty, or stenting, is an option. This procedure involves using a balloon-like device to open a clogged artery and placing a small wire tube (stent) into the artery to keep it open.
Preparing for your appointment
A TIA often is diagnosed in an emergency situation, but if you're concerned about your risk of having a stroke, you can prepare to discuss the subject with your doctor at your next appointment.
What you can do
If you want to discuss your risk of a stroke with your doctor, write down and be ready to discuss:
- Your risk factors for a stroke, such as family history of strokes
- Your medical history, including a list of all medications, as well as any vitamins or supplements, you're taking
- Key personal information, such as lifestyle habits and major stressors
- Whether you think you've had a TIA and what symptoms you experienced
- Questions you might have
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor may recommend that you have several tests to check your risk factors and should tell you how to prepare for the tests, such as fasting before having your blood drawn to check your cholesterol and blood sugar levels.