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What is the Difference Between a Heart Attack and Stroke?

A heart attack happens when blood gets cut off to part of the heart; a stroke occurs when blood gets cut off from the brain. Although they have similar risk factors, they have different symptoms and treatment options. Here, we explain some of the similarities and differences.

Table of contents

  • Risk factors for heart attack and stroke
  • What is a heart attack?
  • Symptoms of a heart attack
  • What to do if you may be having a heart attack
  • What is a stroke?
  • Symptoms of a stroke
  • What to do if you may be having a stroke
  • Diagnosis and treatment of a heart attack
  • Diagnosis and treatment of a stroke
  • Rehabilitation following heart attack and stroke at AnMed Health

Risk factors for heart attack and stroke

The leading risk factors are similar for both heart attack and stroke, and they include:

  • High blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Unhealthy diet

To minimize the risk for both heart attack and stroke, eat a healthy diet, become physically active and maintain a healthy weight.

What is a heart attack?

Coronary artery disease causes most heart attacks. This disease results from years of plaque building up in arteries, possibly due to high cholesterol, high blood pressure or smoking. Sometimes, a piece of plaque breaks off, which can lead to a blood clot that blocks an artery. When that happens, the heart muscle can’t receive oxygen and a heart attack occurs.

Symptoms of a heart attack

A heart attack may come on suddenly, or it may begin slowly with mild pain that lasts for several minutes and may even subside momentarily before increasing in severity. If you feel these signs and fear that you may be having a heart attack, please call 911:

  • Chest pain and pressure
  • Pain in either or both arms, back, neck, stomach or jaw
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath

Chest pain and pressure are the most common symptoms for all people suffering a heart attack. Other symptoms can be different for men versus women. For example, women are more likely to experience jaw pain, nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath than men are.

What to do if you may be having a heart attack

If you suspect that you or someone else may be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. (After calling 911, unlock your front door so the medical team can reach you quickly.) By calling 911 instead of driving to an emergency department, a team will be ready to deliver life-saving care upon its arrival. This is often the fastest way to get help for a heart attack. 

If someone near you may be experiencing a heart attack, encourage them to chew and swallow one dose of aspirin to reduce heart damage. If the person is unconscious, begin CPR by starting chest compressions at a fairly quick rate, about 100 compressions each minute. If the person is unconscious and an automated external defibrillator (AED) is nearby, follow the instructions on the device to help. Many public areas, including workplaces, schools and stores will have AEDs.

What is a stroke?

A stroke occurs when blood can’t reach the brain. It’s a medical emergency requiring very quick treatment to restore blood flow and prevent brain damage. There are two main types of strokes:

  • Ischemic stroke, the most common, occurs when blood vessels narrow and restrict blood flow to the brain. This may result from a blood clot or a disease called atherosclerosis.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke occurs due to a blood vessel in the brain leaking or rupturing. This could be a result from an aneurysm, uncontrolled high blood pressure or a trauma.

Symptoms of a stroke

Because it’s crucial to treat a stroke quickly and restore blood flow to the brain, knowing the symptoms of a stroke can save your life or that of someone else:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body, in the face, an arm or a leg
  • Sudden difficulty walking, speaking or seeing
  • Sudden confusion
  • Face drooping

What to do if you may be having a stroke

Do not delay seeking help if you or someone else may be experiencing a stroke. Call 911 immediately. Act FAST if you suspect a stroke, which means:

  • F: Face – Ask person to smile, and see if one side of their face droops
  • A: Arms – Ask person to raise both arms, and notice if one arm drifts down
  • S: Speech – Ask person to repeat a simple phrase, and notice if their speech is slurred or different than usual
  • T: Time – If you notice any of these signs, call 911 immediately.

With a stroke, every minute counts, and time is brain: The faster you receive treatment, the greater the chances of recovery. An ambulance team will be ready to begin treatment upon their arrival, and calling 911 is often the fastest way to receive care for a stroke.

Diagnosis and treatment of a heart attack

At the hospital, doctors diagnose heart attacks through an electrocardiogram (ECG), which measures the heart’s electrical activity, and blood tests, which detect proteins that leak into the bloodstream during a heart attack. They may perform additional diagnostic tests, including:

  • Echocardiogram, which examines how strongly the heart is pumping blood
  • Chest x-ray, which looks at the size of the heart
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan or Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which detect heart damage
  • Angiogram, which detects blockages
  • Stress test, which detects at-risk areas of the heart

Treatment of a heart attack may include:

  • Bypass surgery, which restores blood flow by securing veins and arteries in their proper position
  • Angioplasty, in which a surgeon inserts a tiny mesh stent into an artery to open it wider
  • Medications, including aspirin or antiplatelet agents (to reduce clots), thrombolytics (to dissolve existing clots) and pain relievers

Diagnosis and treatment of a stroke

To learn if a stroke has occurred, doctors will use a combination of the following tests:

  • CT scan, which can show if the brain has experienced a stroke, bleeding or other conditions
  • MRI, which can detect damage to the brain tissue
  • Physical exam, which a doctor will check your blood pressure and heart rate
  • Blood tests, which shows how quickly your blood clots and if you have an infection

In addition, doctors may do imaging tests of the heart to see if a clot there may have caused the stroke, or of the neck, to determine if there are plaques that may interfere with normal blood flow.

Stroke treatments depend upon the cause and severity of the stroke, and they include:

  • tPA treatment, which is available within three hours of the start of a stroke and can dissolve blood clots
  • Surgery, to repair damaged vessels and remove blood surrounding the brain
  • Endovascular therapy, a minimally invasive procedure that can improve blood flow

Manage your risk of heart attack and stroke with AnMed Health

If you’ve experienced a heart attack or stroke, AnMed Health can help you recover. Our cardiac rehabilitation program helps patients improve their cardiovascular health following a heart attack, and our rehabilitation hospital can help patients who’ve had a stroke improve their mobility and speech skills. Call us at 864-512-1000 to learn how we can help you.

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