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What's the Difference Between a Heart Attack and a Stroke?

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Updated July 07, 2014

Defect of the blood-brain barrier after stroke shown in MRI. T1-weighted images, left image without right image with contrast medium administration.
Hellerhoff/Wikimedia Commons

Question: What's the Difference Between a Heart Attack and a Stroke?

Whenever I speak to lay audiences about CPR or heart attacks, there's almost always someone in the crowd who thinks heart attack and stroke are just two different terms for the same thing. They're not.

Answer: Heart attack refers to damage to the muscle of the heart, usually from a lack of blood flow. Most of the time, a blood clot forms in one of the arteries that supplies the heart muscle with blood, blocking the flow of blood. As the heart muscle starves, it begins to die, causing chest pain and other heart attack symptoms.

A stroke is a similar blockage in an artery that supplies blood to the brain. When a clot forms in one of those arteries and stops blood flow, a section of the brain begins to die. Stroke symptoms often don't include any pain or discomfort, and are more likely associated with losing feeling or the ability to move. Much of the time, strokes affect only one side of the body.

These two terms are so often misunderstood that some in the medical community are attempting to do away with stroke and replace it with the term brain attack. Personally, I doubt it will change. (Besides how difficult it is to do away with a widely accepted medical term, "brain attack" just sounds like the title of a really bad movie.)

 

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