Too often, people tend to lump major life-threatening physical conditions together. While heart attack and stroke both get a lot of press, they are completely different conditions with very different symptoms, treatments, and outcomes. They do have two things in common – they are both commonly caused by blockages of arteries, and they can both result in death.
Heart Attacks are caused by a blockage in the arteries of the heart (as the name would imply). Without a supply of oxygenated blood, the part of the heart supplied by the blocked artery begins to die. This muscle death can cause a range of symptoms such as a feeling of crushing pain in the chest, numbness of the left arm, shortness of breath, shoulder or back pain, sweating, and nausea. The victim is typically awake and able to describe their pain. They need to get to a hospital without delay. If someone complaining of heart attack symptoms suddenly collapses and is no longer responsive or breathing normally, the heart attack has escalated into sudden cardiac arrest. Call 911 and begin CPR immediately. Defibrillation with an AED may be necessary to reset the heart’s rhythm. If one is available it should be utilized as soon as possible – ideally within 3 to 5 minutes. If no AED is available, continue CPR until EMS help arrives.
Stroke is typically caused by either a blockage of a blood vessel in the brain or by a rupture of a blood vessel in the brain. This can result in symptoms including “sudden difficulty seeing, speaking, or walking, and feelings of weakness, numbness, dizziness, and confusion.” (https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/issue/aug2014/feature1) Numbness or paralyzation on one side of the body is also a notable outward sign of stroke and observers will be able to see it most obviously in the victim’s facial muscles. If you suspect someone is having a stroke, you should administer a simple 4-part test: 1. Ask them to smile. 2. Ask them to speak a simple sentence such as “It is a very nice day.” 3. Ask them to raise both arms. 4. Ask them to stick out their tongue. If they are only able to smile on one side, their speech is slurred or they can’t remember the sentence, they are only able to raise one arm, and/or if their tongue automatically goes to one side or the other, they may be having a stroke. Call 911 immediately and wait for EMS to arrive. They can begin to administer treatment on the way to the hospital. Every minute counts!
Treating a heart attack often includes anticoagulant drugs to thin the blood (liquids move through small openings quicker if they are thinner – the most common of these is simple aspirin) or other drug therapy, catheter procedures to open the arteries without opening the chest, or bypass surgery. Lifestyle changes are also often recommended as part of continuing treatment. Someone who suffers a heart attack can live a relatively “normal” life after leaving the hospital.
Since there are two different kinds of stroke – Ischemic (where the artery is blocked) and Hemorrhagic (where a blood vessel ruptures or leaks blood), there are two different treatments. For an ischemic stroke, treatment is similar to those of a heart attack – anti-clotting drugs or clot-busting drugs can be used to dissolve the clot, or a catheter procedure can be performed to physically open the blocked vessel. For a hemorrhagic stroke, the first thing the doctor will do is try to isolate the location of the bleed. Surgery may be needed. After leaving the hospital, recovery times can vary from days to years depending on the severity of the damage incurred during the stroke and may include both physical and speech therapy.
In cases of both heart attack and stroke, early intervention is the key to favorable outcomes. Heart attack symptoms can go on for hours, days or even weeks and can lead to sudden cardiac arrest if ignored. As strokes affect the brain, they can leave a victim with a road to recovery which involves relearning or improving how they move, think and speak. If there is any indication you are in the presence of someone experiencing a heart attack or a stroke, or if you think you may be having one yourself, the best advice is always to get medical help immediately!