Knowing the differences between cardiac arrest vs. stroke is important, as it allows you to recognize what is going on in an emergency and offer appropriate assistance. While the cardiac arrest and heart attack are often confused, the symptoms of a stroke are quite different from both of these conditions and can be equally fatal if not treated in time.
What Is a Stroke?
A stroke occurs when the flow of blood to part of the brain is interrupted either partially or completely, cutting off the supply of oxygen and nutrients. Whereas a heart attack is the result of a blockage to part of the heart, a stroke is the result of a blockage to part of the brain—you could think of a stroke as a “brain attack.”
The blockages that lead to strokes can happen in one of three ways:
The blood vessel leading to the brain is blocked by a blood clot, typically composed of the fatty deposits that line the vessel wall in a condition called atherosclerosis. Ischemic strokes account for around 87% of all strokes.
Instead of being blocked by a clot, the blood flow is obstructed due to a burst blood vessel, typically relating to aneurysms and arteriovenous malformations (AVMs). The primary risk factor for a hemorrhagic stroke is uncontrolled high blood pressure.
Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)
A transient ischemic attack is similar to an ischemic stroke except that the obstruction is only temporary. Sometimes described as a “mini-stroke,” a TIA usually doesn’t cause permanent damage but indicates that a regular stroke might be on its way.
The Consequences of a Stroke
If a stroke isn’t treated quickly, the blood clot cuts off the flow of oxygen and brain cells begin to die. This can lead to permanent brain damage and death. However, if immediate medical attention is available, the blood clot can be removed to minimize the potential damage.
According to the CDC, around 150,000 Americans die each year from strokes, making it the fifth most prevalent cause of death. Three out of four strokes occur in people over the age of 65, and the risk of stroke doubles during each decade after the age of 55.
Symptoms of Stroke
The symptoms of a stroke are quite different from the symptoms of a cardiac arrest. The symptoms of a stroke typically include a severe headache and sudden numbness or weakness on one side of the body.
You can use the acronym F.A.S.T. to identify a stroke and potentially save a life. You should call 9-1-1 if the person displays ANY of the following symptoms:
- F – Is their face drooping on one side? If you ask them to smile, is their smile lopsided?
- A – If you ask the person to lift their arms, does one arm drift downward?
- S – Is their speech slurred or difficult to understand?
- T – It’s time to call 9-1-1!
How Stroke Is Different From Cardiac Arrest
In contrast to a stroke, a cardiac arrest takes place in the heart and is usually fatal without immediate treatment. Whereas strokes (and heart attacks) are the result of an obstruction to part of an organ, cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating unexpectedly due to an electrical malfunction. Although different from a heart attack or stroke, an untreated heart attack can often lead to cardiac arrest, though that is not always the cause.
When sudden cardiac arrest does occur, whether preceded by a heart attack or another cause, there is no blood supply to their other organs and their brain cells start to die. It’s critical to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and pump oxygen-rich blood to these organs with chest compressions until an automated defibrillator (AED) arrives. This reduces the likelihood of permanent brain damage and death.
How an AED Can Help With Cardiac Arrest
When a person goes into cardiac arrest, an automated external defibrillator such as the HeartSine Samaritan PAD 350P or Philips HeartStart FRx can often shock their heart back into a normal rhythm if applied within minutes. Because you only have a few precious minutes from the moment the person loses consciousness, a fast response is essential.
Oftentimes sudden cardiac arrest occurs without warning. If you see these signs, presume that it’s cardiac arrest and apply life-saving measures immediately:
- The person collapses
- The person is unconscious and unresponsive
- The person is not breathing
- The person has no pulse
Sometimes, there may be warning signs before a cardiac arrest, including:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest discomfort
If you see the signs of a cardiac arrest or a stroke, call 9-1-1 right away. If the person is unconscious and not breathing, commence chest compressions and send someone to fetch an AED.
Risk Factors for Cardiac Arrest and Stroke
While sudden cardiac arrest and stroke are completely different conditions, they share many of the same risk factors:
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Type 2 diabetes
If you want to reduce your risk for both of these serious conditions, stop smoking (or don’t start), maintain a heart-healthy diet, and get plenty of physical activity several times a week.
Genetic factors and heart disease can also play a role in predisposing you to cardiac arrest or stroke. If you have a family history of coronary artery disease or an irregular heartbeat, it could be worth getting screened for heart conditions and taking preventative measures if needed.
Know the Signs and Save a Life
Sudden cardiac arrest and stroke can both be fatal if left untreated. However, when you recognize the signs, you can help ensure that critical care is delivered quickly and effectively.
If you ever suspect a person is in trouble, call 9-1-1 right away—and start chest compressions if the person is unconscious. Even if you’re not 100% sure what they have, your timely action could save a life.