01/05/2014 09:15 BST | Updated 30/06/2014 06:59 BST

A Mini-Stroke Is Not Just a 'Funny Turn'

Each year there are around 150,000 strokes in the UK. A third of those (around 46,000) will be a mini-stroke. Also known as a TIA, or transient ischaemic attack, a mini-stroke is a warning sign that a person is at risk of having a major stroke. Spotting the symptoms of a mini-stroke, and ensuring people are urgently treated, is crucial. Taking urgent action when a mini-stroke strikes could save over 3,000 lives each year and prevent 10,000 strokes. But as our report, Not just a funny turn reveals, thousands of people who have a mini-stroke are putting their lives at risk by dismissing their symptoms.

So why is mini-stroke so poorly known and misunderstood? Based on responses from nearly 700 stroke survivors and carers and launched to mark the start of the Stroke Association's Action on Stroke Month 2014, the report provides both a fascinating, and deeply troubling, insight into the level of awareness amongst the public and healthcare professionals of mini-stroke and how they respond when the symptoms strike.

Over a third of people who took part in our report thought their mini-stroke was just a 'funny turn' and only one in five rang 999. These findings have serious implications for the health and well-being of our nation, as one in 20 people will go on to have a major stroke within two days of having a mini-stroke.

Stroke is the world's second biggest killer and the third largest cause of death in the UK. More people lose their lives to stroke than breast cancer and prostate cancer. By urgently investigating and treating people who have a mini-stroke, we can reduce their risk of having another stroke by 80% which, in turn, could save our National Health Service and care services more than £200m each year. That's why during Action on Stroke Month, we're turning the spotlight on mini-stroke, so that people realise there's nothing small about a mini-stroke.

The only difference between a mini-stroke and a stroke is that the blockage cutting off the blood supply to part of the brain is temporary. The blood supply returns to normal and the symptoms disappear, usually within 24 hours. Lulled into a false sense of security, many mini-stroke patients delay calling 999 when their symptoms start. As our report shows, this can have serious consequences.

A fifth of people who took part in our survey went on to have a major stroke and almost half (45%) reported that their mini-stroke had affected them physically, resulting in problems with their communication, memory and vision.

But it's not just the public who are writing off the symptoms of mini-stroke. Most people across health and social care do a first-rate job, often under challenging circumstances. While most people who did seek medical attention believed their symptoms were taken seriously, a third felt that health and care professionals were too quick to dismiss their mini-stroke and nearly a quarter of people (23%) were given no information, or advice, about the changes they needed to take to their lifestyle to prevent a stroke.

Worryingly, others reported delays in referral to specialist services. One person we spoke to was 47 year-old Susan. In July 2012, Susan had a dizzy spell and couldn't see out of her right eye. A CT scan at A&E failed to pick anything up and she was diagnosed with nothing more than a migraine. Her sight had still not returned the next and after seeing an ophthalmologist, she was eventually referred to a TIA clinic. The referral, however, came too late. On the morning she was due to see a specialist, Susan had a major stroke. She has now been forced to give up work and is no longer able to drive.

Susan's story illustrates just how important it is to spot the early warning signs of stroke. We know that the greatest risk of having a major stroke is within the first few days after a mini-stroke. That's why rapid referral and treatment is vital to reduce the risk of long-term disability for people like Susan. Acting FAST, when a mini-stroke or stroke strikes, will also help to save lives.

Our report uncovers the formidable challenge we face in getting people to understand just how serious mini-stroke is. It's vital we raise awareness of mini-stroke, so both the public, and health professionals, treat it as a medical emergency. The good news is, something can be done.

While stroke awareness initiatives, such as the FAST campaign, have helped to raise awareness of stroke, we need more prominent and tailored messages to feature in national and local stroke awareness campaigns.

There must be improved support, information and advice for patients to help them make the necessary lifestyle changes to reduce their risk of further mini-strokes and strokes. We know, for example, that physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyles increase our risk of stroke by 50 per cent and taking moderate exercise can reduce our risk by almost a third.

Community- based prevention services should also be developed in partnership with voluntary groups, such as the Stroke Association, our National Health Service and local authorities, to help those at risk of stroke. Professionals in health and social care, such as GP receptionists, hospital registrars and health visitors, must be able to recognise the symptoms of mini-stroke and understand the importance of rapidly referring patients for specialist assessment and treatment, to prevent strokes from striking.

Almost 17 million people across the world have a stroke each year - up 68% since 1990. With the global scale of disability, long-term illness and premature deaths caused by stroke predicted to more than double by 2030, the findings in our report should serve as a wake-up call. As a charity, we operate on limited resources to help change the lives of many. That's why we hope both the public, and health and care professionals, will get behind our campaign and join us in ensuring that people who have a mini-stroke are supported so they can make their best possible recovery.

A mini-stroke is not just a 'funny turn'. It is a warning sign of stroke and must be treated as a medical emergency. Time lost is brain lost. By acting FAST, and calling 999, we can prevent stroke and save lives. To find our more about our campaign, or to make a donation, visit: http://www.stroke.org.uk/strokemonth.