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Aneurysm vs stroke: How to reduce your risk for both.

aneurysm vs stroke: Shirtless man looking at his side with white wavy lines on his chest and shoulder

Key takeaways:

  • When comparing an aneurysm vs stroke, both have older age and a family history of strokes or aneurysms as risk factors.
  • Aneurysms are a risk factor for certain types of strokes, but not all.
  • Aneurysms are a bulging of an artery wall that has weakened.
  • Strokes are caused by either a rupture of the artery wall or, more commonly, a blockage of an artery in the brain.
  • Routine screening for aneurysms can reduce the risk of rupture and subsequent stroke.

When comparing an aneurysm vs stroke, there are many similarities, including ways to prevent and screen for them. When someone’s risk for either an aneurysm or stroke is identified, routine screening can help monitor for changes to intervene before any damage occurs.

Aneurysms and strokes have many similarities, specifically when it comes to risk factors and prevention, but they are two distinctly different diagnoses. 

An aneurysm is a bulging of an artery wall caused by a weak spot in the artery. Aneurysms can rupture and cause life-threatening bleeding, and these ruptures tend to happen most often in the brain and heart.

A stroke, on the other hand, occurs when one of two things happens: a blockage of a blood vessel or a rupture of a blood vessel. Both of these interfere with blood flow. 

Strokes only occur in the brain and can also be life-threatening if not treated early, as they interfere with the vital blood supply to brain cells.

Types of aneurysms.

The American Heart Association defines an aneurysm as a ballooning or widening of an artery wall due to a weakening of this wall. Imagine a radiator hose or garden hose that has worn out and starts to bulge–this is what happens with an aneurysm. The artery can still function, but over time, it becomes at risk of rupturing.

Arteries are the pressurized blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood around your body, so if an artery ruptures, massive bleeding can occur in a very short amount of time. Unlike strokes that only occur in the brain, aneurysms can occur in any artery.

The most common aneurysms are:  

  • Aortic aneurysm, occurring in the main artery that carries blood directly from the heart to the body
  • Cerebral aneurysm, or brain aneurysm
  • Popliteal artery aneurysm, which is behind the knee
  • Mesenteric artery aneurysm, which occurs in the arteries that serve the blood vessels around the intestines
  • Splenic artery aneurysm, taking place in the spleen

Some people are born with aneurysms, some occur without any real known cause, and others can be traced back to certain risk factors. 

What causes strokes?

Certain strokes can be caused by a rupture of an aneurysm in the brain. But according to the American Stroke Association, less than 15% of all strokes are caused by an aneurysm, with the most common type of stroke caused by a blockage of the artery versus a rupture.

Hemorrhagic stroke.

Most hemorrhagic strokes are caused by a cerebral aneurysm, also called a brain aneurysm. Only 1% are caused by an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). AVMs are a tangle of blood vessels in the brain—people are typically born with them. 

The majority of hemorrhagic strokes occur when a cerebral aneurysm ruptures, causing bleeding in the brain. This bleeding means the brain isn’t getting access to vital oxygen and nutrients it needs to function. Not only is the brain deprived of oxygen during a hemorrhagic stroke, but the bleeding can also cause pressure on the brain tissue which can damage tissue and brain function. 

Ischemic stroke.

Ischemic strokes are the most common form of stroke and occur when there is a blockage within one of the brain’s arteries. The blockage is most often caused by fatty deposits that line the blood vessel wall. These fatty deposits can either grow so large they fully block or clog the artery, or they can break apart in one area and travel to another artery. There, they can cause a blockage called a thrombus or blood clot.

Aneurysm vs stroke: What causes them?

Aneurysm vs stroke: Smiling man looking at the camera while using his laptop

Risk factors for both aneurysm and stroke have a lot of overlap. Both diagnoses are associated with controllable and uncontrollable risk factors. As far as those uncontrollable risk factors for developing an aneurysm, these include men, older individuals, and those with certain genetic factors and/or a family history of aneurysms.

Regarding stroke risk factors not within your control, older age, and family history of stroke are risk factors similar to an aneurysm. More women have strokes than men. And being African-American significantly increases a person’s risk of stroke due to an increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. 

Fortunately, there are several risk factors for both aneurysm and stroke that are in your control. These mainly center around healthy lifestyle choices:

  • Don’t smoke.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Reduce high blood pressure.
  • Reduce high cholesterol.
  • Manage or prevent diabetes. 

There are also other diagnoses that increase your risk of stroke, including carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease, atrial fibrillation, sickle cell disease, and other heart diseases. 

If you have any of these health problems, it’s important to work with your healthcare team to reduce your risk and schedule routine screening tests to further assess your risk.

Aneurysm vs stroke: What are the symptoms?

Aneurysms and strokes don’t always have symptoms, especially if the aneurysm is small or the blood vessel during a stroke is only temporarily blocked (called a transient ischemic attack or mini-stroke). But distinct symptoms for each diagnosis can help you identify them early and seek treatment ASAP. 

Aneurysm symptoms.

Many aneurysms do not display symptoms unless a rupture occurs, but certain signs can lead you to consider a potential aneurysm. These signs all depend on where the aneurysm is located:

  • Brain: nausea, vomiting, severe headache, or vision changes
  • Abdomen: persistent lower back, chest, abdominal pain
  • Groin (femoral artery or common iliac): pulsating sensation in the groin, leg pain, sores on the lower legs or feet, groin, lower abdomen, or back pain
  • Behind the knee (popliteal): pulsating of the artery behind the knee, leg pain, or leg sores

If a ruptured brain aneurysm were to occur, the biggest symptom is a sudden and severe headache, often described as the worst headache of your life. If the aneurysm ruptures in the abdomen, sudden and intense abdominal or back pain can occur. 

Stroke symptoms.

Stroke symptoms include a sudden appearance of:

  • Numbness or weakness on one side of the body
  • Confusion
  • Vision changes
  • Difficulty walking or loss of balance
  • Severe headache

If you or someone you’re with is displaying these symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend performing the following FAST actions:

  • Face: Ask the person to smile and look for any drooping.
  • Arms: Ask them to raise their arms and look for one drifting downard.
  • Speech: Ask them to say a simple phrase and listen for any slurring or strange speech.
  • Time: If you see any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately. 

The longer a stroke or ruptured aneurysm is left untreated, the greater the risk of brain damage. That’s why it’s extremely important to seek medical attention if an aneurysm or stroke is suspected.

Aneurysm vs stroke treatments.

If an aneurysm is identified, treatment depends on the size, location, and overall risk of rupture. Certain medications can be given to reduce the risk of rupture. Sometimes, surgery is recommended to repair the aneurysm if the risk of rupture is high.

If someone has an ischemic stroke caused by a blockage in the brain, intravenous medication to dissolve and remove the clot is considered the gold standard. A device can physically remove the clot when someone has had an ischemic stroke. 

In the case of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm, causing a hemorrhagic stroke, treatment options include surgery to remove the blood and relieve pressure on the brain. For both types of stroke and a ruptured aneurysm, immediate medical attention is crucial. These can all be life-threatening events if left untreated. 

How can I prevent an aneurysm or stroke?

Woman stretching while outdoors

When it comes to an aneurysm vs stroke, many of the prevention strategies are the same. These include eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and managing any chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol. In addition to reducing risk factors, routine screening can be vital to aneurysm and stroke prevention. 

A screening can both catch an aneurysm before it ruptures and identify any potential for arterial blockages which could lead to a stroke. MRIs are one of the best ways to evaluate for any building arteries in the brain, abdomen, kidneys, as well as other vital organs.

At Ezra, our full-body MRI provides helpful information so you can work with your healthcare provider to reduce symptoms and monitor your risks closely.