Stroke and heart attack symptoms occur suddenly. Though the two events have a few possible symptoms in common, their other symptoms differ.
A common symptom of a stroke is a sudden and powerful headache. A stroke is sometimes referred to as a “brain attack.” A heart attack, on the other hand, often occurs with chest pain.
Recognizing the different symptoms of a stroke and heart attack can make a big difference in getting the right kind of help.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of stroke and heart attack depend on:
- the severity of the episode
- your age
- your gender
- your overall health
The symptoms can come on quickly and without warning.
What are the causes?
Both strokes and heart attacks can occur due to blocked arteries.
The most common type of stroke is an ischemic stroke:
- A blood clot in an artery within the brain can cut off circulation to the brain. This can cause a stroke.
- The carotid arteries carry blood to the brain. Plaque buildup in a carotid artery can have the same result.
The other main kind of stroke is a hemorrhagic stroke. This occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and blood leaks into surrounding tissue. High blood pressure that strains the walls of your arteries can cause a hemorrhagic stroke.
Heart attack causes
A heart attack occurs when a coronary artery becomes blocked or narrows so much that blood flow stops or is severely restricted. A coronary artery is an artery that supplies blood to the heart muscle.
Blockage in a coronary artery can happen if a blood clot stops blood flow. It can also happen if too much cholesterol plaque builds up in the artery to the point at which circulation slows to a trickle or stops altogether.
What are the risk factors?
Many of the risk factors for stroke and heart attack are the same. These include:
High blood pressure strains the walls of your blood vessels. That makes them more rigid and less likely to expand as needed to maintain healthy circulation. Poor circulation can increase your risk of stroke and heart attack.
If you have a heart rhythm abnormality known as atrial fibrillation (AK), you also have an increased stroke risk. Because your heart doesn’t beat in a regular rhythm during AF, blood can pool in your heart and form a clot. If that clot breaks free of your heart, it can travel as an embolus toward your brain and cause an ischemic stroke.
How are heart attack and stroke diagnosed?
If you have stroke symptoms, your doctor will get a quick summary of symptoms and a medical history. You’ll likely get a CT scan of the brain. This can show bleeding in the brain and areas of the brain that may have been affected by poor blood flow. Your doctor may also order an MRI.
A different set of tests is done to diagnose a heart attack. Your doctor will still want to know your symptoms and medical history. After that, they’ll use an electrocardiogram to check on the health of your heart muscle.
A blood test is also done to check for enzymes that indicate a heart attack. Your doctor may also perform a cardiac catheterization. This test involves guiding a long, flexible tube through a blood vessel into the heart to check for blockage.
How are heart attack and stroke treated?
Sometimes treating the blockage responsible for a heart attack requires more than just medication and lifestyle changes. In these instances, either coronary artery bypass grafting (CAGB) or angioplasty with a stent may be necessary.
During a CABG, which is often referred to as “bypass surgery,” your doctor takes a blood vessel from another part of your body and attaches it to an artery that’s blocked. This reroutes blood flow around the clogged portion of the blood vessel.
Angioplasty is done using a catheter with a tiny balloon at its tip. Your doctor inserts a catheter into the blood vessel and inflates the balloon at the site of the blockage. The balloon squeezes the plaque against the walls of the artery to open it up for better blood flow. Oftentimes, they’ll leave a little wire mesh tube, called a stent, in place to help keep the artery open.
After a heart attack and the subsequent treatment, you should participate in cardiac rehabilitation. Cardiac rehabilitation lasts several weeks and includes monitored exercise sessions and education about diet, lifestyle, and medications for better heart health.
After that, you’ll need to continue exercising and eating a heart-healthy diet while avoiding things like smoking, too much alcohol, and stress.
That same healthy lifestyle is also recommended following treatment for a stroke. If you had an ischemic stroke and made it to the hospital within a few hours of symptoms starting, your doctor may give you a medication called tissue plasminogen activator, which helps break up a clot. They can also use tiny devices to retrieve a clot from blood vessels.
For a hemorrhagic stroke, you may need surgery to repair the damaged blood vessel. Your doctor may use a special clip in some cases to secure the part of a blood vessel that ruptured.
What is the outlook?
Your outlook following a stroke or heart attack depends greatly on the severity of the event and how quickly you get treatment.
Some people who have a stroke will experience damage that makes walking or talking difficult for a long time. Others lose brain function that never returns. For many of those who were treated soon after symptoms began, complete recovery may be possible.
Following a heart attack, you can expect to resume most of the activities you enjoyed before if you do all of the following:
- follow your doctor’s orders
- participate in cardiac rehabilitation
- maintain a healthy lifestyle
Your life expectancy will depend greatly on whether you adhere to heart-healthy behaviors. If you have a stroke or heart attack, it’s important to take the rehabilitation process seriously and stick with it. As challenging as it may be at times, the payoff is a much better quality of life.
Preventing heart attack and stroke
Many of the same strategies that can help prevent a stroke can also help reduce your chances of having a heart attack. These include:
- getting your cholesterol and blood pressure levels into a healthy range
- not smoking
- maintaining a healthy weight
- limiting your alcohol intake
- keeping your blood sugar under control
- exercising most, if not all, days of the week
- eating a diet that’s low in saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium
You can’t control certain risk factors, such as age and family health history. You can, however, live a healthy lifestyle that may help reduce your odds of having a heart attack or stroke.