In the world of human health, there are two conditions that people sometimes confuse: a stroke and an aneurysm. These two health events can be tricky to tell apart but have distinct differences.
Read on as we explore the differences between aneurysms and strokes, including their symptoms, risk factors and how they are diagnosed and treated.
What is a stroke?
A stroke is a serious medical condition that happens when something goes wrong with the blood flow in your brain.
“Various factors can cause strokes, but the main types are ischemic – which accounts for more than 80% of strokes – and hemorrhagic,” said Andrei Alexandrov, MD, a vascular neurologist with Banner – University Medicine.
Two common types of strokes:
Blocked blood flow (ischemic stroke): This type of stroke happens when a blood clot or a chunk of plaque travels to the brain. Ischemic strokes have two primary causes: embolism and thrombosis.
“An embolism is where a blood clot or debris travels from other parts of the body and blocks brain blood vessels,” Dr. Alexandrov said. “And thrombosis happens when blood clots form within the brain’s blood vessels, causing a blockage and reduced blood flow.”
Bleeding in the brain (hemorrhagic stroke): This type of stroke happens when an artery in the brain bursts, causing blood to spill into the surrounding tissue. The primary cause of hemorrhagic strokes is chronic high blood pressure (hypertension).
“Other causes can be a brain aneurysm, arteriovenous malformations, head trauma and certain medications,” Dr. Alexandrov said.
What is an aneurysm?
An aneurysm, on the other hand, is a weak spot or bulge in a blood vessel. It’s a bit like a balloon that’s about to pop. As this weak spot gets bigger, it might burst, causing a serious problem.
Aneurysms can occur in your brain but also in different parts of your body as well. “But they can be especially dangerous in your brain because if they burst there, it can lead to a hemorrhagic stroke,” Dr. Alexandrov said.
Any condition that causes weakness in your arteries can bring one on. The most common cause is high blood pressure. Other reasons involve smoking, certain medical conditions like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome that weaken blood vessel walls and a family history of aneurysms.
Common risk factors for strokes and aneurysms
Both strokes and aneurysms share common risk factors, with high blood pressure being a major contributor. Other risk factors include:
- Other cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary heart disease
- Family history
- Older age
- Gender: “Women are at greater risk for unruptured cerebral aneurysms and more prone to develop bleeding with aneurysmal rupture,” Dr. Alexandrov said.
Recognizing the signs of a stroke or aneurysm
Strokes and aneurysms may not always show symptoms, especially when the aneurysm is small or during a temporary blockage of blood vessels in a stroke (known as a transient ischemic attack or mini-stroke).
However, recognizing the unique symptoms of each condition can help identify them early and seek treatment as soon as possible.
- Symptoms often come on suddenly and without warning. These may include:
- Weakness, numbness or paralysis on one side of the body
- Drooping of one side of the face
- Trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Problems with balance and walking
- Vision changes
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe headache or dizziness
Aneurysms can be a bit sneaky because they can develop quietly without symptoms. But if they burst, they may cause the following symptoms:
- Sudden, severe headache (often described as the worst headache of your life)
- Facial or eye pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sudden blurred or double vision
- Trouble walking
Diagnosis and treatment
Fast action and a quick diagnosis are important for both strokes and aneurysms. “The faster you get treatment, the better your chances of recovery and preventing severe complications,” Dr. Alexandrov said.
To diagnose either condition, health care professionals use special scans like CT or MRI to check blood vessels and the brain. Blood tests and exams are also used in the diagnosis of stroke.
Treating a stroke
The treatment for a stroke depends on its type.
“Ischemic strokes are often treated with medications, such as clot-busting drugs (thrombolytics) or with a device that removes the clot (thrombectomy), to restore blood flow to the brain,” Dr. Alexandrov said.
Hemorrhagic strokes are cared for differently, often with surgery to stop the cause of bleeding, repair a ruptured blood vessel and ease pressure on the brain.
Treating an aneurysm
Treatment for aneurysms can also vary.
Your health care provider may take a “watch and see” approach to monitor small, unruptured aneurysms with a lower risk of bursting. “Often, the risks of surgery are not worth taking with a low-risk aneurysm,” Dr. Alexandrov said.
Larger or ruptured aneurysms often require more aggressive treatment, such as surgical clipping or endovascular coiling, to prevent rupture or re-bleeding.
Can I prevent a stroke or aneurysm?
While you can’t guarantee that you will never experience a stroke or aneurysm, there are things you can do to reduce your risk.
Here are some important steps you can take to lower your chances for these events:
- Manage high blood pressure
- Control diabetes
- Quit smoking
- Eat healthy
- Exercise regularly
- Limit alcohol
- Get regular well-checks with your provider
Also, check out “12 Steps to Help Prevent a Dangerous Stroke” for more tips.
Takeaway: Act swiftly
Strokes and aneurysms are different health problems, but they share one important thing in common: Both need to be treated right away.
If you suspect you or someone else is experiencing symptoms of a stroke or aneurysm, do not hesitate – call 911 without delay. What you do during the first hour of having stroke symptoms will largely determine how you will spend the rest of your life.
Talk to your health care provider if you have any concerns about your health, treatment options or future outlook. Your health is invaluable, and understanding these two events can empower you to take proactive steps for a healthier life.
If you need a provider, you can find a Banner Health specialist near you.