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Heart attack vs. stroke: Knowing the difference can save a life


When it comes to a stroke or heart attack, seconds count. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone dies from a heart attack every 90 seconds; from a stroke, every four minutes. Time matters, and understanding the difference between a stroke and heart attack can save lives.

What is a stroke?

A stroke occurs when oxygen-rich blood fails to reach the brain. Within minutes without oxygen, brain cells begin to die, quickly affecting the area controlled by that part of the brain. Strokes can cause permanent brain damage, physical disability and death. In fact, close to 2/3 of stroke survivors will have some form of disability.

The most common, an ischemic stroke, is the result of a blocked artery, usually from a blood clot. A hemorrhagic stroke happens when a blood vessel leaks or even ruptures, as in the case of high blood pressure or an aneurism. A mini stroke, known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA), occurs when blood flow is disrupted for a short amount of time. Although the damage isn't permanent, a TIA is a sign of blockage and should be evaluated immediately.

Know the symptoms

Regardless the type of stroke, the faster you can call 911 and get medical treatment, the better chance of preventing long-term permanent damage or death. So know the symptoms, and this acronym.

F Face Drooping

A Arm Weakness

S Speech Difficulty

T Time to Call 911

What is a heart attack?

Similar to a stroke, a heart attack occurs when there is a lack of blood flow, but in this case, a lack of blood flow to the heart. Without blood flow, the heart muscle doesn't receive the oxygen it needs to operate, permanently damaging the muscle.

The most common culprit is blockage in a coronary artery, or sometimes multiple arteries. Over time, plaque builds up in our arteries, narrowing the arteries and creating a blood clot. Blood flow is limited, sometimes altogether stopped. Whether there's a hereditary predisposition to plaque buildup, or it's the result of an unhealthy diet, high in cholesterol and fats, recognizing the signs of a heart attack are crucial to surviving.

Know the symptoms

Every 43 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack, so it's important to know the symptoms. Immediately call 911 if you experience:

  • Pain or tightness in the chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain, stiffness or achiness in one or both arms, the back, shoulder, neck or jaw
  • Nausea, cold sweats or lightheadedness

Methodist Health System offers world-class cardiovascular services and are designated Advanced Primary Stroke Centers by the American Stroke Association.

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