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Most heart attacks and strokes are caused by a disruption in the flow of blood. A blocked blood vessel to the heart typically causes a heart attack. A rupture or blocked blood vessel to the brain typically causes a stroke.

Knowing the warning signs and learning how to reduce your risks just might save your life.

Heart attack is the leading cause of death in the United States, so knowing the warning signs and learning how to reduce your risks just might save your life. When the blood supply to the heart is blocked, the heart tissue becomes injured, and most of the time the body will give some type of sign that something bad is happening. Here are the major warning signs:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Upper body pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw or upper stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, lightheadedness or cold sweats

Stroke, also referred to as “brain attack,” is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. The brain is very delicate tissue, and when its blood supply becomes compromised, the tissue can begin to die very quickly. Most of the time a stroke is due to a blockage in a blood vessel that supplies the brain, but sometimes, a blood vessel can rupture. Whether it is a blockage or a rupture, it can produce similar symptoms. Look out for these major warning signs:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or difficulty understanding speech
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or lack of coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

If you or someone you know is having a heart attack or stroke, time is critical, since emergency medicines and procedures may help restore proper blood flow and reduce damage. If you suspect someone is having a heart attack or stroke, call 911, so that the person can get to the nearest emergency room.

Here are some things that you can do to help prevent a heart attack or stroke:

  • Find help to stop smoking as soon as possible. A primary care doctor can help you with this, and so can the Montana Quit Line at 1-800-QUIT-NOW.
  • Learn about daily physical activity and healthy foods to maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Find out your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • Reduce your consumption of alcohol.
  • If possible, learn more about your family medical history.

See your healthcare provider to learn more about your overall risk for developing a heart attack or stroke.

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Dr. James Hickey, a third-year resident physician with the Montana Family Medicine Residency at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 247.3306.