Is It Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) or a Stroke?

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on February 11, 2024
5 min read

Coronary artery disease (CAD) and stroke are two of the deadliest health problems in the United States. CAD takes a toll on the heart, while stroke damages the brain. When you have either one of these conditions, you are more likely to get the other.

CAD is the most common type of heart disease. It can happen when a waxy substance called plaque builds up in the coronary arteries. These are the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to your heart. The buildup can narrow these arteries over time and limit or cut off blood flow. That can lead to a heart attack, heart failure, or other serious problems.

A stroke can happen when a blood clot, a buildup of plaque, or other particles block arteries leading to your brain. It can also happen if a blood vessel in your brain bursts. Either way, brain cells get damaged, and the symptoms show up in the parts of your body that those brain cells control. For example, after a stroke, you might have weakness or paralysis in one part of your face. A stroke can lead to long-term brain damage, disability, or death.

CAD and stroke have different symptoms, so it’s a good idea to be aware of the warning signs for both. That way you can get potentially lifesaving medical care as soon as possible and lower your chances of severe or long-lasting health problems.

Chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of CAD. You may hear your doctor call this angina. You might feel it behind your breastbone, but you can also feel it in your:

  • Arms
  • Shoulders
  • Back
  • Jaw
  • Throat

If you’re a woman, you’re less likely than a man to have chest pain from heart trouble. It’s more common for women to notice:

Long-term coronary artery disease in both men and women can bring on symptoms like:

  • Angina
  • Shortness of breath with activity
  • Tiredness
  • Neck pain

Symptoms like these may get worse as your coronary arteries get narrower from plaque buildup.

While CAD starts with chest pain or these other symptoms for many people, some people don’t learn they have the disease until they have a heart attack. Some signs of a sudden and severe heart problem are:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Nausea or feeling of indigestion
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Cold sweats
  • Shortness of breath, especially while active
  • Neck pain
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Feeling more tired than usual

If you notice chest pain or discomfort that doesn’t go away, happens often, or flares up while you’re resting, you might be having a heart attack. Call 911 if you think you might be having one, even if you’re not sure.

A stroke is an emergency that can bring on sudden:

  • Numbness or weakness in your face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of your body
  • Confusion, trouble speaking, or struggling to understand speech
  • Problems seeing out of one or both of your eyes
  • Movement problems, such as trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
  • Severe headache with no clear cause

Women and men often have similar stroke symptoms, like face drooping, weakness in the arm, and trouble speaking clearly. Other shared common signs include trouble seeing or balancing, or coordination problems.

But women can also have symptoms like:

  • General weakness
  • Feeling disoriented and confused or having memory problems
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea or vomiting

Some women’s stroke symptoms can be so subtle that they’re easy to brush off. Don’t ignore these signs. Time is of the essence if you or someone around you needs stroke treatment.

The most effective treatments are only available when a doctor can diagnose a stroke within the first 3 hours of symptoms. So it’s important to spot the warning signs of a stroke as quickly as possible. You can do that by remembering the initials F.A.S.T.

Face drooping. One side of the face sags or goes numb. Ask the person to smile, and check to see if the smile is uneven.

Arm weakness. One arm becomes weak or goes numb. Ask the person to raise both of their arms, and check to see if one arm drifts downward.

Speech trouble. Muscles that control speaking become weak and cause slurred speech.

Time to call 911.Call for help right away if you or someone you know appears to be having a stroke. The sooner you get treatment, the less brain damage the stroke may cause.

If possible, write down the time that the symptoms first showed up. That can help doctors choose the best treatment. Don’t drive to the hospital or get a ride there. Call an ambulance, so paramedics can start giving you treatment before you get to the ER.

It’s also possible to have a “warning stroke” or “mini stroke.” Doctors call this a transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA is an emergency that has the same symptoms as a regular stroke, but the symptoms usually last from a few minutes to up to 24 hours. Some people ignore these warning signs, which can be a dangerous mistake. You need to call 911 even if the symptoms go away.

TIAs happen before about 15% of strokes, and they raise risk for more TIAs, a full-blown stroke, or other blood vessel-related problems later. You could have these later problems within days or weeks of a TIA. Early medical care may help prevent them.

It’s critical to know the symptoms of both CAD and stroke, so you can act fast and get treatment as early as possible. But you can also make some simple, healthy changes to lower your chances of both problems in the first place. About 80% of cardiovascular diseases -- including stroke and heart disease -- are preventable.

Take healthy steps like these: