Combined, the two conditions affect 1.5 million people each year.
Both heart attacks and strokes can cause permanent damage to important organs, affecting quality of life and even causing death. Though a heart attack and stroke have several things in common, their symptoms, treatment, and recovery are different.
Contents of this article:
Causes of heart attacks and strokes
Atherosclerosis is a buildup of fatty plaque in arteries that can block blood flow.
The majority of strokes and heart attacks are caused by a disease known as atherosclerosis. This causes a buildup of a substance called plaque inside blood vessels.
Over time, the plaque can harden and break off, causing a blood clot to form on top of the plaque. The clot can block the blood vessel and starve vital organs of oxygen.
During most heart attacks, one of the heart's blood vessels, known as a coronary artery, becomes blocked by a clot. Part of the heart muscle rapidly loses its blood supply and may become permanently damaged.
Similarly, a stroke is often caused by the blockage of a blood vessel leading to the brain, known as a carotid artery. The clot robs the the brain of its vital blood supply and can lead to brain damage. This is why a stroke is sometimes called a "brain attack."
Heart attack and stroke treatment
Many heart attacks and strokes are caused by blocked arteries and blood clots. As a result, their treatment may be alike in several ways.
In both cases, a patient may receive clot-busting medicines in the hospital known as thrombolytics. These help dissolve the blood clot and restore blood flow to the affected organ. These medicines usually need to be given as soon as possible after symptoms begin, or at least within a few hours.
Clots in the coronary or carotid arteries may also be physically removed using an endovascular procedure. This is a non-surgical procedure that uses a thin tube to grab the clot and remove it or push it out of the way. Examples of this procedure are:
- Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) for heart attack
- Mechanical thrombectomy for stroke
Not all patients are candidates for a clot-removing procedure. If it is performed, it should be done as soon as possible after symptoms appear.
Recovery from stroke and heart attack
After a stroke or heart attack, many patients are prescribed medicines. These drugs can help by doing the following:
- Reducing future plaque buildup in the arteries
- Lowering blood pressure or cholesterol
- Reducing blood clots
These medicines may be used long-term to help avoid another heart attack or stroke.
Though some heart attack and stroke medicines may overlap, there are different treatments for each condition based on a patient's health history. Heart attack patients may get specific medicines that help reduce stress on the heart, prevent further heart damage, and relieve chest pain.
People with diabetes have an increased risk of stroke, so medications to help control blood sugar and diabetes may be prescribed for some stroke patients.
As many strokes and heart attacks are due to plaque buildup inside the arteries, either condition may involve certain lifestyle changes, including:
- Following a heart-healthy diet
- Getting exercise
- Quitting smoking
- Maintaining a healthy weight
These changes can help the body recover from the stroke or heart attack. They can also reduce the chances of having another one and promote general wellness.
The most important thing about a good recovery from a heart attack or stroke is getting treatment as soon as possible.
Different types of therapy for heart attack and stroke
Many heart attacks and strokes require some kind of rehabilitation or physical therapy. The type of therapy and goals of the treatment are usually quite different.
After a heart attack, a person may need cardiac rehabilitation. This is specialized therapy designed to improve heart health and is done under a doctor's supervision. Cardiac rehab usually includes:
- Exercise: A cardiac rehab specialist guides a person through exercise that is heart healthy and safe for them to do
- Information about living a heart healthy life: This includes a healthy diet, quitting smoking, and managing heart attack risk factors
- Stress reduction: Finding ways to manage stress can help improve heart health
Some basic physical therapy may be required after a heart attack or stroke.
Therapy after a stroke is quite different from a heart attack. If a person has suffered brain damage from a stroke, therapy may include a variety of exercises to help them relearn skills they may have lost.
Most strokes cause one of the following disabilities, which may be temporary or permanent:
- Problems with movement or paralysis of certain areas of the body
- Pain and headaches
- Trouble swallowing
- Changes in behavior or emotions
- Problems with thinking and memory
- Trouble talking or understanding others
- Uncontrolled urine leakage or bowel movements
- Changes to vision, taste, or smell
Heart attack and stroke are similar in many ways, but require different care and follow-up. Following a heart healthy lifestyle and regular doctor visits can help minimize the risk of these life-threatening conditions, but cannot prevent them completely.
The best way to increase the chances of survival and recovery is to learn the warning signs of heart attack and stroke and seek emergency medical care immediately should any symptoms appear.
Heart attack symptoms
Chest pain is one of most recognized symptoms of a heart attack. While it is the most common symptom, many people who experience a heart attack have little to no chest pain. These people may not realize they are having a heart attack or seek medical care as quickly as needed.
There are many other symptoms of heart attacks as well as chest pain. These symptoms may include:
- A feeling of pressure, fullness, or squeezing in the chest
- Pain in the jaw, neck, arms, back, or stomach
- Feeling short of breath
- Feeling lightheaded or fainting
- Cold sweats
- Nausea or vomiting
Women are more likely than men to experience nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, and jaw pain.
Anyone who experiences these symptoms should seek care immediately. They are also advised to sit down and take an aspirin.
Learn more about the warning signs of a heart attack.
There are two types of strokes: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Most people who have strokes have an ischemic stroke. These are usually caused by a blood clot in one of the brain's blood vessels. A hemorrhagic stroke is not caused by a blockage or plaque but by a burst artery.
People should seek medical care as soon as they experience any symptoms of heart attack or stroke.
A stroke can begin to damage the brain rapidly, leading to permanent disability or death. Stroke symptoms come on quickly, often with no warning. They may include:
- Drooping on one side of the face or being unable to move one side of the face
- Weakness or numbness in one arm - the person may be unable to raise both arms evenly out to their sides
- Slurred speech or difficulty talking - the person may not be able to repeat simple words or sentences clearly
- Loss of vision in one eye
- Loss of balance, falling, or dizziness
A transient ischemic attack (TIA) or "mini-stroke" produces symptoms just like a stroke, but they only last for a few minutes before going away. A TIA does not permanently damage the brain but they should not be ignored. About a third of people who have a TIA will have a stroke within a year.
Anyone who experiences possible stroke symptoms should see a doctor immediately, even if they come and go quickly.