A third of transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs) and ischaemic strokes are of undetermined cause (ie, cryptogenic), potentially undermining secondary prevention. If these events are due to occult atheroma, the risk-factor profile and coronary prognosis should resemble that of overt large artery events. If they have a cardioembolic cause, the risk of future cardioembolic events should be increased. We aimed to assess the burden, outcome, risk factors, and long-term prognosis of cryptogenic TIA and stroke.
In a population-based study in Oxfordshire, UK, among patients with a first TIA or ischaemic stroke from April 1, 2002, to March 31, 2014, we compared cryptogenic events versus other causative subtypes according to the TOAST classification. We compared markers of atherosclerosis (ie, risk factors, coronary and peripheral arterial disease, asymptomatic carotid stenosis, and 10-year risk of acute coronary events) and of cardioembolism (ie, risk of cardioembolic stroke, systemic emboli, and new atrial fibrillation [AF] during follow-up, and minor-risk echocardiographic abnormalities and subclinical paroxysmal AF at baseline in patients with index events between 2010 and 2014).
Among 2555 patients, 812 (32%) had cryptogenic events (incidence of cryptogenic stroke 0·36 per 1000 population per year, 95% CI 0·23–0·49). Death or dependency at 6 months was similar after cryptogenic stroke compared with non-cardioembolic stroke (23% vs 27% for large artery and small vessel subtypes combined; p=0·26) as was the 10-year risk of recurrence (32% vs 27%; p=0·91). However, the cryptogenic group had fewer atherosclerotic risk factors than the large artery disease (p<0·0001), small vessel disease (p=0·001), and cardioembolic (p=0·008) groups. Compared with patients with large artery events, those with cryptogenic events had less hypertension (adjusted odds ratio [OR] 0·41, 95% CI 0·30–0·56; p<0·0001), diabetes (0·62, 0·43–0·90; p=0·01), peripheral vascular disease (0·27, 0·17–0·45; p<0·0001), hypercholesterolaemia (0·53, 0·40–0·70; p<0·0001), and history of smoking (0·68, 0·51–0·92; p=0·01), and compared with small vessel and cardioembolic subtypes, they had no excess risk of asymptomatic carotid disease (adjusted OR 0·64, 95% CI 0·37–1·11; p=0·11) or acute coronary events (adjusted hazard ratio [HR] 0·76, 95% CI 0·49–1·18; p=0·22) during follow-up. Compared with large artery and small vessel subtypes combined, patients with cryptogenic events also had no excess of minor-risk echocardiographic abnormalities (cryptogenic 37% vs 45%; p=0·18) or paroxysmal AF (6% vs 10%; p=0·17) at baseline or of new AF (adjusted HR 1·23, 0·78–1·95; p=0·37) or presumed cardioembolic events (1·16, 0·62–2·17; p=0·64) during follow-up.
The clinical burden of cryptogenic TIA and stroke is substantial. Although stroke recurrence rates are comparable with other subtypes, cryptogenic events have the fewest atherosclerotic markers and no excess of cardioembolic markers.