The Difference Between a Stroke and a Heart Attack

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A stroke, also known as a "brain attack," is caused by a brain bleed or blockage of blood flow to the brain. A heart attack stems from a blockage of the coronary arteries in the heart. Both conditions occur suddenly, and result from a lack of oxygen-rich blood flow for essential brain and heart function, leading to cell damage and death.

This article reviews the symptoms, causes, risk factors, and treatment for heart attacks and strokes.

Man having a heart attack

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What Is a Stroke?

Strokes occur when there is not enough blood flow to the brain. This lack of blood starves the brain of the essential oxygen it needs to function, leading to brain cell death.

There are two main types of strokes:

  • Ischemic strokes result from a blockage inside a vessel in the brain. 87% of all strokes are ischemic.
  • Hemorrhagic strokes result from a vessel bleed inside the brain. This type is less common, accounting for about 13% of all strokes.

Symptoms

Stroke symptoms usually come on quickly and include:

  • Numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg (usually occurs more on one side of the body)
  • Difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Issues with walking, coordination, dizziness, or balance
  • A severe headache that occurs "out of the blue"

Strokes are life-threatening and require emergency care. If you think that you or someone else is having a stroke, call 911 as soon as possible.

Causes

Several major factors can increase your risk of having an ischemic stroke, including:

Lifestyle factors that can increase your risk of ischemic stroke include:

Hemorrhagic strokes are due to bleeding in the brain, and usually occur from one of the following factors:

  • Aneurysm: A "ballooning" part of a blood vessel in the brain caused by increased pressure that eventually ruptures
  • Arterial malformation: A group of abnormally formed blood vessels

There is also a link between head trauma and an increased risk of having a hemorrhagic stroke in the future.

Side Effects

How a stroke affects someone can differ depending on which part of the brain is involved. Although each stroke is unique, some of the after-effects may include:

  • Paralysis on the right or left side of the body
  • Speech or language problems
  • Memory loss
  • Behavioral issues
  • Vision problems
  • Death

What Is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction (MI), occurs when blood flow to the heart is severely reduced or stopped. This can occur due to an accumulation of plaque within a blood vessel that causes the vessel to become narrower. The blockage is primarily made up of fat and cholesterol, known as atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis can cause ischemia by restricting blood flow to the heart. In addition, if a piece of plaque breaks off from the artery wall, a blood clot may form, which can block essential blood flow to the heart muscle.

Either way, when the heart muscle stops receiving oxygen and nutrient-rich blood flow, cells in the heart become damaged or die.

Symptoms

The primary symptom of a heart attack is usually chest pain or discomfort on the left or middle part of the chest that lasts for more than three minutes. This pressure can feel like squeezing, fullness, pain, or pressure.

Other symptoms of a heart attack can include:

  • Lightheadedness (feeling weak or faint)
  • Jaw, neck, or back pain
  • Pain in the shoulders or arms
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tiredness with no cause
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations

Causes

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common cause of a heart attack. CAD is also the leading cause of death in the United States.

Other health conditions increase your risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack. These include:

  • Hypertension, or high blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol or illegal drug abuse
  • Eating a diet high in fat, salt, and sugar
  • Lack of physical exercise

Uncontrollable risk factors include a family history of heart attacks and older age.

Side Effects

Recovery after a heart attack depends on many factors, including:

  • Severity of the heart attack
  • Type of treatment given
  • The person's overall health

It's crucial to discuss recovery steps with your healthcare provider. In some cases, people can return to work and normal daily activities anywhere from two weeks to three months after having a heart attack.

Other complications connected with having a heart attack include:

Treatment

Stroke Treatment

If you suspect that you or a loved one shows signs of having a stroke, call 911 immediately. Going to the hospital by ambulance enables a person to be diagnosed and treated more quickly.

In addition, some stroke treatments, such as tissue plasminogen activator (TPA), must be given within a few hours of the onset of an ischemic stroke.

Upon arrival at the hospital, patients will have non-invasive diagnostic testing with a computerized tomography (CT) scan to determine the type of stroke and the best course of treatment.

Some of the treatments for stroke that may help save brain tissue include:

  • Medication
  • Surgical treatments, such as clipping (for a hemorrhagic stroke)
  • Endovascular procedures, such as coiling (for an ischemic stroke)

Heart Attack Treatment

If you have or see signs of someone having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.

Treatment for a heart attack is usually dependent on a diagnostic angiogram that can view blood flow to your heart and determine how well your heart is pumping.

After determining the type of heart attack, some of the treatment methods given may include:

  • Clot-dissolving drugs (thrombolysis) to restore blood flow
  • Balloon angioplasty, or percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), involves a catheter with an inflated balloon to push and hold the plaque against the artery wall
  • Artificial heart valve surgery replaces an abnormal or diseased heart valve with a new one
  • Atherectomy involves inserting a catheter with a rotating shaver on its tip to cut away plaque from the artery
  • Stent procedure involves inserting a wire mesh tube to prop open an artery during angioplasty
  • Surgery, such as coronary artery bypass graphing (CABG)
  • Minimally invasive heart surgery, an alternative to standard bypass surgery

In some cases, a patient may receive a combination of treatments.

Prevention

There are several ways to prevent a stroke and heart attack, such as:

  • Know your risk factors
  • Exercise regularly (be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before starting a new exercise program)
  • Eat a nutritious diet
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Don't smoke
  • Manage health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol
  • Take medications as prescribed by your healthcare provider

Summary

Strokes and heart attacks result from a lack of oxygen-rich blood flow for essential brain and heart function. Both are life-threatening and can lead to long-term disability. They differ in that strokes result from blockages of blood flow to the brain, whereas heart attacks result from blockages to the heart.

Although some risk factors, such as age or genetics, are uncontrollable, many lifestyle risk factors can be addressed to minimize your chances of having a stroke or heart attack. These include eating healthy, exercising, not smoking, and managing existing health conditions.

If you or someone else has symptoms of a stroke or heart attack, call 911 immediately. Faster treatment leads to a greater chance of recovery.

A Word From Verywell

The thought of you or a loved one having a stroke or a heart attack can be frightening. Fortunately, there are several ways that you can reduce your risk and prevent these events from occurring. If you do see someone showing signs of a stroke or heart attack, it's crucial to act quickly by calling 911 to ensure the best chance of recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a mini-stroke?

    A "mini-stroke," also called a transient ischemic attack (TIA), is similar to a stroke in terms of symptoms, but they only last for an hour or less and then resolve. In some people, a TIA may only last for a few minutes.

    If you have a TIA, you are at a greater risk of having a major stroke in the future. Talk to your healthcare providers about ways to lower your chances of having a stroke.

  • How do you calculate stroke volume?

    Stroke volume is the volume of blood pumped out of the left ventricle of the heart during each beat. Stroke volume is measured using an echocardiogram.

  • What does a heart attack feel like?

    Symptoms of a heart attack can include:

    • Chest pain
    • Lightheadedness
    • Jaw, neck, or back pain
    • Pain in the shoulders or arms
    • Shortness of breath
    • Tiredness with no cause
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Sweating
    • Heart palpitations
  • How long does a heart attack last?

    Most heart attacks cause chest pain or discomfort that lasts more than several minutes. In some cases, the pain will go away and then return. A heart attack can also last several hours. If you think you are experiencing a heart attack, call 911 immediately for treatment.

  • How many heartbeats per minute is a heart attack?

    A normal heart rate for an adult is 60-100 beats per minute. During a heart attack, a person's heart rate may elevate or can stay within a normal rate. However, there is evidence that a heart rate above 80 bpm during hospital admission increased the risk of death after a heart attack.

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14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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