What's the difference between TIA and stroke?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What's the difference between stroke and TIA, or ministroke?

Expert Answer

Jeremy Payne, M.D., is the medical director of Banner Good Samaritan Stroke Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

The main difference is that a TIA (what some people cause a ministroke) doesn't cause lasting damage. A TIA, which stands for transient ischemc attack, and a stroke are caused by the same problem: blood clots that lodge in the brain. But some people get lucky and recover quickly without any lasting damage. When that happens, we call it a TIA.

When doctors suspect a stroke, they do an MRI to image the brain. This can show right away whether there was damage or injury to any areas of the brain. Doctors often can't tell until they get the results whether it was a stroke or not. They use the terms stroke, ministroke, and TIA interchangeably, and families can get confused.

In terms of treatment, it doesn't really matter whether someone had a stroke or a TIA. The response should be the same, since both are caused by a blood clot that went to the brain. So we need to do a series of tests to see if we can find out what caused the clot, and then treat underlying conditions to prevent it from happening again.

The main difference with a TIA is that, because it doesn't cause lasting damage, there's no stroke recovery to focus on. The focus in that case is on looking at the health of the patient's heart and blood vessels and lowering all the risk factors that can contribute to a stroke.