Some Minor Strokes Lead to Disability

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept 13, 2012 -- Minor strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) are red flags for full-blown strokes in the future. But new research suggests that they can lead to disability in their own right.

A TIA, sometimes called a "mini stroke," causes stroke-like symptoms, but they last for less than 24 hours.

Fully 15% of 499 people who had a minor stroke or TIA had some disability 90 days later. The type of disability seen in the study included being unable to perform previous activities, but still being capable of handling personal affairs on one's own.

Minor stroke or TIA symptoms may include:

  • Inability to move one side of your body
  • Numbness on one side of the body
  • Dizziness
  • Severe sudden headache
  • Difficulty speaking

In the study, people who had blocked brain arteries and/or ongoing or worsening symptoms were more than twice as likely to have some disability at 90 days. Others who were at higher risk for disability included people with type 2 diabetes and women. More than 50% of people who had recurring strokes were disabled at 90 days, compared to 12% of those who did not have a recurrent stroke.

As a result, the study authors suggest that some high-risk people may benefit from the same clot-busting medication given to people who've had major strokes. These medications can help stave off lasting disability after a stroke, but must be given within a specific time frame.

Most people who've had a minor stroke do not get these drugs because the condition was thought to be too mild.

The new findings appear in Stroke.

Time Matters

"Patients with symptoms initially perceived as minor have a high risk of disability. This is especially true in patients with blocked or narrowed arteries," says researcher Shelagh Coutts, MD. She is a neurologist at Foothills Hospital in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

"Time is an issue, and even when patients [show] 'mild' deficits they need to be assessed very quickly, and ideally get urgent brain and blood vessel imaging," she says. "In many centers, these patients are not seen urgently and this needs to change."

Coutts and colleagues are now conducting a study to see if clot-busting drugs are effective in minor stroke patients with blocked blood vessels in the brain.

Minor Strokes Can Lead to Major Problems

"There has been accumulating evidence regarding the not-so-great 90-day outcomes seen after mini or minor strokes," says Ralph Sacco, MD. He is chair of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and a past president of the American Heart Association.

The message is clear: If you or someone you love has stroke symptoms, seek evaluation ASAP. "Even if the symptoms vanish or get better, it is still urgent to get medical attention," he says. "You may not be out of the woods. Symptoms could come back or get worse and cause lasting damage."

Andrew Slivka, MD, agrees. He is a neurologist at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. "We have moved toward getting these people evaluated sooner so we can treat them and/or prevent a recurrent stroke," he says.

Treating with clot-busting drugs may prove challenging because of the time constraints, he says. Some people may benefit from preventive measures aimed at getting better control over risk factors for stroke, including smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Many doctors don't think about rehab for people after minor strokes, but the new findings suggest this may be an option for some people as well.


What is a stroke? See Answer

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SOURCES: Shelagh Coutts, M.D, neurologist, Foothills Hospital in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Coutts, S.B. Stroke, 2012, study received ahead of print. Ralph Sacco, MD, chair of neurology, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Florida. Andrew Slivka, MD, neurologiost, Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, Columbus, Ohio.

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