The terms “stroke” and “aneurysm” are sometimes used interchangeably, but these two serious conditions have some important differences. Keep reading to learn more about identifying and treating strokes and aneurysms.

What are the symptoms?

Both a stroke and an aneurysm that bursts can come on suddenly without any warning. The symptoms will vary. The kind of emergency treatment you should receive will also depend on whether it’s a stroke or an aneurysm. Regardless of which one is the cause, a fast response to symptoms is essential.

Stroke symptomsAneurism symptoms
sudden, intense headacheheadache
numbness or tingling on one side of the face or bodynumbness in one or both limbs
weakness in arms or legsweakness in one or both limbs
trouble with balance or coordinationmemory issues
vision problemsvision problems
confusionupset stomach

Not all of the stroke symptoms will be present. If one or a few signs develop quickly, you should assume you might be having a stroke. Call your local emergency services immediately if you suspect you’re having a stroke.

You won’t usually have symptoms if you have an aneurysm unless the aneurysm bursts. If an aneurysm bursts, you’ll get a terrible headache suddenly. You may also get sick to your stomach and vomit. The event may also make you very tired or cause you to go into a coma.

What are the causes?

A cerebral aneurysm usually stems from damage to the artery, which can occur from trauma, an ongoing health condition, or a vascular problem that you’ve had since birth.

Two main types of stroke exist, and they each have a distinct cause.

Ischemic stroke

An ischemic stroke is the most common type of stroke, accounting for about 87 percent of all strokes. It occurs when an artery in the brain or an artery carrying blood to the brain becomes blocked. The blockage may be a blood clot or a narrowing of the artery due to plaque buildup. Plaque in an artery is made up of low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol, and other fats and cells.

Learn more: Natural remedies for high cholesterol »

When arteries anywhere in the body become narrowed by plaque or become rigid because of high blood pressure or other health problems, the condition is called atherosclerosis. You may have heard it described as “hardening of the arteries.” When this happens, blood flow either stops completely or reduces to the point where the organs and tissue relying on that blood supply become starved and injured.

Hemorrhagic stroke

A hemorrhagic stroke isn’t related to blockage in an artery. It’s a bleeding event in which an artery ruptures. Blood either stops flowing altogether through that artery or blood flow is reduced as some blood leaks out through the new opening in the artery wall.

A hemorrhagic stroke may occur due to an irregular formation of blood vessels. That is called an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). These irregular blood vessels can rupture and spill blood into the brain.

The most common cause of a hemorrhagic stroke is the bursting of a cerebral aneurysm. A blood vessel wall becomes weak because it’s bulging outward. Eventually, an aneurysm can burst. The hole in the artery wall means blood flow is reduced farther downstream. That causes blood to spill into the tissue surrounding the artery.

Any time blood flow to a part of the brain is disrupted the event is called a stroke.

Cerebral aneurysm

In addition to an AVM, other genetic health conditions, such as connective tissue disorders, can lead to an aneurysm in the brain. An aneurysm can also develop when damage is done to the arterial wall.

High blood pressure and smoking strains blood vessels. Atherosclerosis, infections, and trauma to the head, such as concussion, can also lead to an aneurysm.

Risk factors for stroke and aneurysm

The following are risk factors for stroke and aneurysm:

  • When high blood pressure, or hypertension, is uncontrolled, you’re at increased risk for a stroke and an aneurysm.
  • Smoking is also a major risk factor for stroke and aneurysm because of the damage smoking does to the health of your blood vessels.
  • A previous history of stroke or heart attack also increases your odds of having a cerebrovascular event.
  • If you’ve had one aneurysm, your odds of having another are also higher.
  • Women have a slightly higher risk than men of developing a cerebral aneurysm or a stroke.
  • Advancing age increases your risks for both events.
  • A family history of aneurysms or stroke may also put you at a higher risk for these events.

How are stroke and aneurysm diagnosed?

You should tell paramedics or emergency room personnel about the symptoms of a stroke or aneurysm as soon as possible. Knowing your symptoms and personal medical history will help your doctor make a diagnosis and treatment plan.

CT and MRI scans can help your doctor diagnose an aneurysm or stroke. A CT scan shows the location of bleeding in the brain and areas of the brain affected by poor blood flow. MRI can create detailed images of the brain. In some cases, your doctor may order an MRI and a CT scan, as well as other imaging tests.

Treatment options

Your doctor will determine the best treatment based on the severity of your stroke or aneurysm and your medical history.

If you had an ischemic stroke and made it to the hospital within a few hours of symptoms starting, you may receive a medication called tissue plasminogen activator. This drug helps break up a clot. Your doctor can also use tiny devices to remove a clot from a blood vessel.

For a hemorrhagic stroke, you may need surgery to repair the damaged blood vessel. Your surgeon may use a special clip to secure the part of a blood vessel that ruptured. They can do this during open surgery, which involves cutting into your skull and working on the artery from the outside.

If you have a small aneurysm that hasn’t ruptured, your doctor may treat it with medications and a watch-and-wait approach. This means they take images of the aneurysm periodically to make sure it hasn’t grown. If it has, then you may need a procedure.

What is the outlook?

As long as an aneurysm doesn’t rupture, it should pose no problems down the road. However, a ruptured aneurysm is fatal within the first 24 hours in about 40 percent of people. Furthermore, complications from a ruptured aneurysm are fatal in an additional 25 percent of people within six months of the event. Many people who survive a ruptured aneurysm have effects that linger for the rest of their lives. Brain damage due to bleeding is irreversible.

The outlook for people who have a stroke is much more varied. A hemorrhagic stroke is much more likely to be deadly, or leave a person with cognitive or physical disabilities. An ischemic stroke can be devastating or relatively mild. Some ischemic stroke survivors have few if any long-term symptoms.

The location of the stroke and time that goes by before blood flow is restored makes a huge difference in your recovery. Rapid treatment may make the difference between being able to walk and talk normally or requiring a walker and years of speech therapy.

Reducing your risk

A foolproof way to prevent an aneurysm or stroke doesn’t exist. You can, however, make sure your blood pressure is under control. Here are some ways to help control your blood pressure:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Add regular exercise to your daily routine.
  • Follow a healthy diet.
  • Take medications as prescribed by your doctor.

If you smoke, you should also talk with your doctor about strategies to quit smoking.

Living a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk for stroke or aneurysm. If you have an aneurysm or stroke, find out about rehab options in your area, and take full advantage of the exercise and lifestyle education these programs offer.