Stroke vs Heart attack – Warning Signs and Symptoms

Understand the warning signs and symptoms of a stroke, and how they differ from a heart attack.

by Emma Lennon

Strokes and heart attacks are serious types of cardiovascular disease, meaning illness affecting the heart and blood vessels that pump blood and oxygen around the body. Both of these types of diseases can be caused by many different factors, but the most common cause of death from the cardiovascular disease usually relates to a build-up of fatty tissue and cellular waste known as plaque. Over time, this built up tissue can harden and block the blood vessels, causing a serious lack of oxygenated blood to vital organs in your body. Cardiovascular diseases like stroke and heart attacks account for a significant number of deaths in Australia every year, with a person dying almost every 12 minutes.

Knowing the warning signs of these two health emergencies can be the difference between life and death. Whilst stroke and attack can have similar underlying causes, they have important differences that you need to be aware of. Read on to understand the warning signs and symptoms of heart attack and stroke, how they differ and what to do if you suspect you or someone you love is experiencing a heart attack or stroke.

What Is a Stroke?

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Stroke is the 10th leading cause of disease burden in Australia, with around 100 strokes happening across the country each day. Survival rates for strokes have increased significantly in recent years, however, it still claims the lives of around 10,000 Australians every year.

Strokes are serious medical emergencies, characterised by a disruption to the brain’s blood supply. The blood transports essential nutrients and oxygen around the body, so when the brain’s blood supply is cut off, brain cells can become damaged and die.

Strokes affect everyone differently, and the impact of the stroke depends on which area of the brain is damaged, and the extent of the damage. Every stroke survivor’s journey is different, however many people will experience long-term changes to their cognition, behaviour, speech, mobility, sight, or ability to swallow. Stroke can affect anyone, but becomes more likely as we age, and seems to affect men slightly more frequently than women.

Other risk factors for stroke include smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, being overweight and excessive alcohol consumption. The best way to avoid stroke is to manage these risk factors as part of a healthy lifestyle, including adequate nutrition, exercise and medical care.

The Warning Signs and Symptoms of Stroke – The “FAST” Method

Early detection of a stroke can save lives and limit the amount of damage to the brain. Whilst some brain cells die immediately after a stroke, some can survive several hours if the blood supply is restored. Knowing the early signs of a stroke is essential to be able to seek urgent medical assistance. The FAST test is an easy way to remember the signs of a stroke. Look for the following signs of stroke, and dial 000 if you suspect one is occurring.

The FAST Method

Facial weakness – look for drooping, particularly around the mouth.

Arm weakness – check if they can lift both arms.

Speech – check for speech slurring and if they can understand your words.

Time – time is critical if a stroke is suspected. Seek emergency medical assistance.

Life After a Stroke – Every Stroke Is Different

Whilst some stroke survivors will experience minimal effects and be able to live a mostly normal life, some people experience long-term or permanent disability following a stroke. Following the acute treatment of a stroke, you and your loved one should rely on your team of medical professionals, who will give you advice on how to continue treatment and rehabilitation at home for the physical and emotional impacts of experiencing a stroke.

Physical Implications of Stroke

Your healthcare team will give you personalised advice on how to continue your stroke recovery journey once you leave the hospital. This usually includes physical rehabilitation to build your strength and health back up and may include the support of an Occupational Therapist to advise on tools like home modifications to enable independent living. 

Emotional Impacts of Stroke

It is common for stroke survivors to experience depression, anxiety and relationship challenges as they adjust to life after stroke, and get used to needing assistance for things they once did independently. Whilst some sadness is normal following such a significant life event, if mental health challenges persist for you or the person you care for, it is important to seek help via a mental health professional, trusted friends and family, or dedicated support groups for stroke survivors and their caregivers. Homage Care Professionals are available to help reduce the physical strain of caring for your loved one, whilst maintaining their wellbeing and dignity to the highest level.

What Is a Heart Attack?

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A heart attack is a serious medical event that can lead to permanent disability and death. A heart attack is a result of poor oxygen supply to the heart, which can be caused by a range of factors. To function normally, the heart requires a healthy supply of blood and oxygen which is delivered in the blood pumped through the coronary arteries and their branches. A heart attack or acute myocardial infarction (AMI) occurs when one or more of the coronary arteries becomes blocked. The severity of the heart attack, the permanent damage and the recovery journey depends on how much damage the heart sustains. 

Anyone can be at risk of a heart attack, however, there are more heart attack-related deaths and hospitalisations among men than women. Heart attacks cause an average of 21 deaths per day in Australia, resulting from around 57,000 heart attacks per year or about one heart attack every ten minutes. Despite these serious and grim statistics, Australians are fortunate to enjoy one of the best hospital survival rates for heart attacks in the world. The best way to survive a heart attack is to prevent them from occurring with healthy lifestyle changes.

What Causes a Heart Attack?

The causes of heart attacks are different for every individual. Some genetic and environmental factors have a role to play, but most people can significantly reduce their risk of heart attack with certain lifestyle changes. Some of the causes and risk factors for a heart attack are:

Coronary Heart Disease and Plaque Rupture

Coronary heart disease is the most common cause of a heart attack. Coronary artery disease is when deposits of fatty tissue, cholesterol and other matter accumulate in the arterial walls. The walls of the artery supply oxygen to the heart. These deposits can harden into plaque, and eventually lead to a piece breaking off and forming a blood clot that blocks the artery. 

Coronary Artery Spasm

This is a sudden tightening of the muscles in your heart’s arteries. These are usually brief and temporary but can lead to a heart attack when they narrow the arteries and prevent adequate blood flow to the heart.

Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection

This is an emergency condition caused by a sudden tear in the wall of a coronary artery. This can cause heart attacks in people with few other risk factors.

Certain lifestyle factors, whilst not direct causes, can increase your risk of having a heart attack. These include:

  • Smoking
  • A diet high in saturated fat, sodium and added refined sugars
  • Sedentary lifestyle or inadequate physical activity
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • High cholesterol especially LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol)
  • Diagnosis of diabetes
  • Unhealthy weight
  • Poor mental health.

Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

Recognising the warning signs of a heart attack can save your life and prevent permanent damage to your heart and cardiovascular system. Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look for.

  1. Chest pain or discomfort (angina)

    This is the most common symptom of a heart attack. It can feel like a squeezing or pressure sensation in the chest that can spread to other parts of the body. For others, it may feel like a numb sensation, aching or a sensation of ‘fullness’. If you experience this for more than a few minutes, call 000.

  2. Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, faint or anxious

    These can be a sign that your blood pressure has dropped because the heart is struggling to pump enough blood through your body.

  3. Indigestion, vomiting or nausea

    Nausea and vomiting are more common signs of a heart attack for women than it is for men. Always seek treatment for unexplained and persistent nausea or vomiting.

  4. Shortness of breath

    Your breathing and your heart function are closely linked. If your heart is unable to get adequate oxygen to deliver fresh blood to the organs, including the lungs, you may feel short of breath.

  5. Sweating or a cold sweat

    Unexplained sweating can be a sign that your heart is working harder than normal to pump fresh blood to the body.

  6. Pain that spreads to the arm

    Pain that begins in the chest and spreads down the left side of the body can be a warning sign to take immediate note of.

  7. Throat or jaw pain

    If you have pain in the throat or jaw that has radiated up from the chest area, it could be serious. If it is a result of a cold or a muscular issue, jaw pain may not be cause for concern.

  8. Unusual fatigue or exhaustion

    Getting tired from activities you once did easily – like walking upstairs – can be a sign of heart failure, especially among women. Make sure you seek medical attention for any unexplained weakness or fatigue.

  9. Snoring or sleep apnea

    Snoring that comes on suddenly and sounds like gasping for breath can be a sign of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea happens when you stop breathing whilst you sleep. This can place extra strain on the heart.

  10. Irregular heartbeat

    Some fluctuation in your heartbeat is normal and not necessarily a warning sign of heart attack. However, if it is unexplained or happening for a long time, check with your doctor to make sure it is not a sign of damage to the heart.

  11. Swollen lower extremities

    Swelling in the legs, ankles and feet can be a sign of poor blood circulation. This can lead to bloating in the lower extremities as a result of stagnant blood supply.

  12. Unexplained persistent cough

    A cough is not a common sign of a heart attack. However, if you have an unexplained cough that produces pink or white mucus it could be a sign of poor heart function.

  13. Pressure or pain in the back

    The heart is located in the torso, and the pain from the heart and chest area can radiate to be felt in the back. This is slightly more likely to be a heart attack symptom for women.

It is important to remember that you don’t have to experience all of these symptoms to be at risk of a heart attack. Never ignore any of the potential signs and symptoms of heart attack, especially if you know you may be at a higher risk.

Life After a Heart Attack – Every Heart Attack Is Different

The first and most critical step of treating a heart attack is restoring the blood supply to the heart. The longer the heart is without adequate oxygen, the greater and more permanent the damage. Once this is restored and the individual is stable, there is a range of options that may be considered depending on the circumstances. This often includes physical rehabilitation, occupational support, medications, lifestyle changes and mental health support.

A heart attack is a terrifying experience for the individual experiencing the attack and their loved ones. Even after the acute treatment period is over, there is often a long recovery journey which can be physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. If you or a loved one is recovering from a heart attack, there is help available. Homage’s team of dedicated Care Pro’s can provide personalised, professional and compassionate care from the comfort of your own home. We can assist you or a loved one with personal and nursing care, transportation to follow-up medical appointments and assist with post-surgery care. We can even help with some domestic tasks and housekeeping, to take some of the pressure off so you can focus on healing your body and spending time with the people you love. 

Stroke vs Heart Attack – Important Differences

Whilst stroke and heart attack have similarities, they are very different acute diseases that require specific responses and treatment. Knowing the difference between the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and a stroke can help you to access the care you need promptly and prevent further damage to your heart or brain.

The most common signs of a stroke are drooping or sagging of the facial muscles, weakness in the arm, and slurred or unclear speech. The most common signs of a heart attack include chest pain, unusual fatigue, lightheadedness or fainting, cold sweats and pain that spreads to the arm, especially the left arm. There are also other less common signs of a heart attack, and both stroke and heart attack can present differently between individuals. Heart attack and stroke are both extremely time-sensitive, so it is important to call 000 if you suspect either is taking place. Never delay seeking medical attention if signs of a stroke or heart attack are present, acting fast can save lives.

Protective factors are similar for both heart attack and stroke, and mostly include leading a healthier lifestyle. You can reduce your risk of stroke and heart attack by eating a healthy, varied diet, engaging in regular physical activity, avoiding smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and managing your stress levels. 

Life After Stroke or Heart Attack: How Homage Can Help

Strokes and heart attacks are life-changing events, for the person affected and their loved ones. It is important not to try to handle everything yourself and reach out for help if you need it. Our team of experienced, dedicated and professional Care Pros can assist you or a loved one to recover from a heart attack or stroke by providing high-quality nursing and post-hospitalisation services from the safety of your home.

We can also help with providing personal care, patient transportation to rehabilitation appointments and assist with basic nursing tasks such as assisting with managing your medication. 

Our Care Professionals are experienced with caring for individuals with stroke and undergo training to better understand, support and care for you and your loved one. We understand that for different individuals, different forms of care support may be required. 

To help manage the costs of post-hospitalisation care after a stroke, there are funding options available to support you. You can utilise your National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) funding if you self manage your funds, or if you have a plan manager to assist you to make service bookings with Homage using your funding.

You may use your Home Care Packages to fund your Homage services if you self-manage your HCP. You may connect Homage with your registered self-managed provider to facilitate service bookings using your HCP funds. We are also happy to facilitate the use of private health care funds to assist you to get the care you need. 

To find out more about how we can help you or a loved one recover from a stroke or heart attack at home, or about funding options and payment plans, get in touch with us. You can speak with our Care Advisory team via our website or by calling us on 1300 705 029. Our Care Hotline is operational from 9 am to 6 pm (weekdays) and 5 pm (weekends and public holidays).

Need some assistance with care for yourself or your loved one? Find out how Homage can help!

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Signs & Symptoms
About the Writer
Emma Lennon
Emma is a public health professional who is passionate about creating health content that informs and empowers. When she is not writing, you can find her at the gym or curled up on the couch with her rescue greyhounds.
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