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My 4-year-old son declared one day that he had a heart attack at school. He told me one of his friends had hurt his feelings. He then put his hand to his head and pretended to fall. This begs the question, what is a heart attack? How is it different from a stroke? Understanding these two conditions and how to react can be lifesaving.

Heart Attack or Stroke?

In simplest terms, heart attacks are caused by injury to the heart and strokes are caused by injury to the brain. This usually occurs due to a blocked blood vessel preventing blood flow (and oxygen) to those organs. Strokes can also be caused when a blood vessel bursts open resulting in bleeding into the brain. Heart attacks and strokes may be caused by the same thing but affect different parts of the body. Therefore, they have different warning signs and result in different complications.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain, difficulty breathing, sweating, nausea and lightheadedness. Although chest pain is the most common symptom, women may be more likely than men to have other symptoms outside of chest pain (such as shortness of breath, abdominal pain or fainting). Signs and symptoms of a stroke include difficulty speaking, facial droop, vision changes, numbness and weakness.

Risk Factors

High cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking can increase your risk of having a stroke or heart attack. You should be monitored by your primary care physician regularly to identify and treat your risk factors. Prevention is key.


If you experience symptoms of either a heart attack or stroke, you need to act FAST. Call 9-1-1 immediately. Strokes and heart attacks can lead to severe disability and/or death. There are certain therapies and interventions that can be provided if you get to the ER quick enough, which could save or improve the quality of your life. If you wait too long, it may be too late.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of a stroke or heart attack and how to react can save your life. As for my 4-year -old son, he is fully recovered and off to school for another day.


-Alexandra Boske, MD, is the Medical Director of the Stroke Center at St. David’s Round Rock Medical Center.

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