Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Johnson Says He Recently Had a ‘Transient Ischemic Attack’

Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Michael Johnson recently revealed on Twitter that he experienced a “mini stroke.”

“Last week I rather surprisingly suffered what's known as a Transient Ischemic Attack or mini stroke,” Johnson, 50, wrote. “The good news is I'm back at home with my family, cleared of any heart issues and have already made great progress on my road to a full recovery.” People flooded his comments with well-wishes and several shared their own stories of having mini strokes.

A mini stroke is essentially a stroke that doesn't cause permanent damage.

As SELF wrote previously, a stroke is a medical emergency caused by the interruption of blood to the brain. It can be either ischemic (often caused by a blood clot blocking blood flow) or hemorrhagic (indicating a blood vessel has burst and is leaking blood into the brain). In both cases, a stroke causes the death of brain cells within minutes, which can lead to brain damage, loss of function, or even death if not treated quickly.

However, a mini stroke ("transient ischemic attack" or "TIA" in medical terms), is a stroke that, by definition, only lasts for a few moments. During that time, blood supply to the brain is briefly interrupted, but then returns.

In the event of a full-blown stroke, “blood flow to an area of the brain is lost and does not recover,” Amit Sachdev, M.D., an assistant professor and director of neuromuscular medicine at Michigan State University, tells SELF. “The part where the blood flow is lost then dies,” he says. But a mini stroke doesn't cause lasting damage "because it clears up quickly," Jason Tarpley, M.D., Ph.D., stroke neurologist and director of the Stroke and Neurovascular Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells SELF.

While mini strokes don’t cause permanent damage, they still need to be taken seriously, and they indicate that you're at an increased risk for a more serious stroke in the future, Bernadette Boden-Albala, M.P.H., Dr.P.H., professor and senior associate dean of research and program development at NYU College of Global Public Health, tells SELF. “[Mini strokes] are truly a warning and harbinger of an ischemic stroke,” Dr. Tarpley says.

Both mini strokes and "regular" strokes can cause similar symptoms.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, those might include:

  • numbness or weakness in your face, arm, or leg (especially on one side of your body)
  • confusion or difficulty talking or understanding speech
  • trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • difficulty walking
  • dizziness
  • loss of balance and coordination

But the symptoms of a mini stroke usually clear up within an hour (although they can last for up to 24 hours).

Anyone can have a mini stroke, but there are a few factors that increase your risk.

Age is the biggest factor, Dr. Sachdev says, meaning that your risk increases as you get older (especially after age 55, according to the Mayo Clinic).

Other things that can increase your risk include a family history of strokes or mini strokes, having certain underlying medical conditions (heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes), and some lifestyle factors (smoking, drinking, and using birth control pills).

Other risk factors include a family history of mini stroke or ischemic stroke, your sex (men are slightly more likely to have mini strokes), a past personal history of a mini stroke, having sickle cell anemia, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, excess weight, smoking, heavy drinking, being physically inactive, and using birth control pills.

If a younger person does get a stroke or mini stroke, it's more likely to be caused by an arterial dissection, a condition in which there's a tear in the inner lining of the artery that goes to your brain, Dr. Tarpley says. That tear can then cause a lack of blood flow to your brain or cause clots to form at the tear—and those can travel to your brain and block things up, he says.

This can be caused by a neck injury, hyperextending your neck, or undergoing chiropractic neck manipulation, but Boden-Albala reminds us that these are rare.

If you’re having symptoms of any kind of stroke, you need to seek medical attention immediately.

“Call 911,” Dr. Tarpley says. “There’s no other thing you should do.” Given that mini strokes and ischemic strokes have similar symptoms, you won't know what you're dealing with until your doctor gives you an MRI, he says. Even if your symptoms clear up quickly, you could have what’s known as a “stuttering” stroke, in which symptoms can come and go, Dr. Tarpley says. “Time is brain. You want to act fast.”

When you get to the ER, you’ll probably be treated as if you had a “regular” stroke just because doctors can’t know for certain without further testing, Dr. Tarpley says. That may mean they’ll put you on drugs that can prevent or break up blood clots.

From there, they'll want to know what caused your mini stroke so they can help prevent another one and keep you from having a full-blown stroke, Dr. Sachdev says. So, you’re probably going to undergo a lot of testing, including MRIs and an ultrasound of your heart, to try to find out what happened.

Going forward, you’ll want to make sure you do what you can to lower your stroke (and mini stroke) risk factors, which means that eating, sleeping, and exercising regularly are all incredibly important, as is managing stress and avoiding smoking, Dr. Sachdev says. A mini stroke doesn't cause permanent damage, but it's a serious wakeup call that something needs to be addressed.


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