What a Young Survivor Wants You to Know About Mini Strokes..
Suddenly one morning, this radio DJ in her 20s couldn’t speak. She was having a transient ischemic attack (TIA).
Amanda Lea knew something was very wrong when she woke early one morning in June 2012. “My whole left side was numb, and when I went to brush my teeth, water came pouring out of my mouth,” says Lea, 29, aradio disc jockey in Fargo, North Dakota.
Lea thought she was having an allergic reaction to a bee sting, but then she realized that she was slurring her words, too. She called in sick, and headed straight to the emergency room. At age 26, Lea could have never imagined her diagnosis: a transient ischemic attack, or TIA, commonly called a mini stroke.
A TIA is caused by a temporary — transient — blood clot in an artery leading to the brain, according to theAmerican Heart Association (AHA). It differs from a full-blown stroke in that symptoms are mild and get better, says Mark J. Alberts, MD, a professor in the department of neurology and neurotherapeutics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and a spokesman for the American Stroke Association. With strokes, he explains, symptoms are more severe, last longer, and can cause permanent brain damage.
Any sign of stroke — such as face drooping, arm weakness, or trouble speaking — requires a call to 911. This is because there’s no way of knowing if the clot will dissolve on its own, as with a TIA, or if it will cause a stroke, Dr. Alberts says.
Transient Ischemic Attack: A Warning Sign?
Lea says she had no warning signs that she was about to have a mini stroke. In fact, she was out the night before, happily socializing with fans of her radio show.
Although a TIA may come with no warning, having one is a warning of a possible future stroke. About one-third of people who have a TIA go on to have a stroke, according to the AHA. The risk is highest within the first few days after the TIA, but remains high for the first three months, Alberts says.
That makes it especially important, he adds, to quickly address any underlying risk factors for stroke, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes, with your doctor. You may need brain-imaging scans, and a check-up for your heart, too. Having the type of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation significantly raises the risk for stroke, Alberts adds. Smoking also increases your risk, according to the AHA.
Migraine Headaches and Mini Stroke Risks
Lea had none of the risk factors for stroke listed above, but she did have a history of serious migraines, which related to her menstrual cycle. At the time of her mini stroke, she had recently started a new birth control pill to help control the headaches. Her doctor suspected the combination of migraines and birth control pills may have triggered her TIA.
Women with complex migraines who have symptoms like trouble walking, talking, or seeing before, during, or after their headaches are at higher risk for stroke if they use oral contraceptives, Alberts says.
Lea says she checked the fine print on the pill she was taking and discovered that it did increase her risk of stroke. She immediately stopped taking them. Now, she avoids taking any medications and, if she must, she always reads the fine print first.
After her TIA, she took an aspirin a day for several months as a precaution and was followed closely by a doctor for a year. Lea says she’s made a complete recovery except for some residual weakness in her left hand.
From Patient to Advocate
Lea now works with the American Heart and Stroke Association in Fargo to raise awareness about stroke. She also shared her story on the air and heard from many other women who’d had a stroke or a mini stroke at a young age.
She admits that if she hadn’t had trouble speaking that fateful morning, she would have gone to work instead of to the hospital and might never have known she’d had a TIA. Now, she takes her health very seriously and urges others, especially women, to do so as well.
“So many women push aside their health problems because they’re busy, their kids come first, or they just don’t want to deal with it,” Lea says. “One thing I’ve learned is, if you are feeling a little off, go to the doctor and figure it out. You have to be your own advocate for your body.”