Knowing the Symptoms of a Brain Aneurysm Saves Lives

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Dr. Nina Radcliff

September is National Brain Aneurysm Awareness Month – and raising awareness of signs, symptoms and risk factors of brain aneurysms is critical to saving lives! The incidence of brain aneurysms is higher than most people realize. About 6.5 million people in the United States – or 1 in every 50 people in this country – has an unruptured brain aneurysm.

About Brain Aneurysms

A brain aneurysm is when part of an artery wall weakens, allowing it to stretch and widen in an abnormal way, that’s not safe–think of a balloon or a berry hanging on a stem. And because the walls of an aneurysmal artery become thin and weaken, it is at risk of rupturing as blood pulsates and flows inside. If an aneurysm ruptures, blood spills into the space between the skull and the brain, resulting in a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH). 

Here are some facts to keep in mind:  

  • Although aneurysms can appear anywhere in the brain, they’re most common in arteries at the base of the brain
  • Many people think that if you’re predisposed to have a brain aneurysm, it’s “just” going to happen. But it doesn’t just come out of nowhere. While the causes of aneurysms are sometimes unknown–some are born with “bad” blood vessels–it can result from smoking, high blood pressure, fatty buildup on blood vessels (atherosclerosis), traumatic brain injury (in particular motor vehicle accidents), blood infections, or illicit drug use (cocaine, amphetamines). Many of these can be controlled/maanaged or avoided.   
  • Brain aneurysms are more common in adults than in children. And too, they’re more common in women than in men.
  • In many cases, aneurysms usually don’t cause symptoms, so you might not know you have an aneurysm even if it’s large 
  • Aneurysms can develop in several parts of your body, including the aorta — the major blood vessel carrying blood from your heart to vital organs (aortic aneurysm)
  • A common misconception about brain aneurysms is that they are the same – or very similar to a stroke. While both occur in the same parts of the brain (blood vessels), it’s not the same. A stroke is anytime that brain cells do not receive sufficient oxygen and die. Strokes can result from blockage from clots (mass of blood that can form inside a blood vessel), atherosclerosis (abnormal fatty buildup inside blood vessel walls), or from a bleeding vessel from any cause, including an aneurysm rupture.  

Symptoms/Treatment

Symptoms can vary type and it’s important to know that aneurysms generally don’t present signs or symptoms until they rupture. 

  • Unruptured brain aneurysm. These can be asymptomatic (especially in the early stages and/or if it’s small).  A larger unruptured aneurysm may press on brain tissues and nerves, possibly causing: pain above and behind one eye, a dilated pupil, vision changes or double vision, headaces, or numbness of one side of the face.
    • If you think you may have an aneurysm or if you’re experiencing new, severe, or persistent symptoms, contact your healthcare provider for a diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible.
    • Treatment for an unruptured brain aneurysm may prevent a rupture in the future. Talk with your health care provider to ensure you understand the best options for your specific needs.
    • If your provider discovers that you have an unruptured aneurysm, they’ll monitor your condition closely. The goal of treatment is to prevent the aneurysm from bursting.
  • Ruptured aneurysm. A sudden, severe headache is the key symptom of a ruptured aneurysm (often described as the “worst headache” ever). 
    • In addition to pain in the involved region, symptoms can also include light-headedness, chest pain, weakness, abdominal pain, droopy eyelid, seizure, confusion, and stiff neck, and vision changes.  
    • If you or someone you’re with complains of a sudden, severe headache or who loses consciousness or has a seizure, call 911 for immediate help.Ruptured aneurysms are a life-threatening emergency. Without immediate treatment, it can be fatal.

Risk factors

  • Risk factors present at birth or inherited: Family history of brain aneurysm, brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM), polycystic kidney disease, and/or inherited connective tissue disorders. 
  • Risk factors that can develop over time include: Older age, cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, drug abuse (particularly use of cocaine, amphetamines), heavy alcohol consumption, and, again, some types of aneurysms may occur after a head injury or from certain blood infections.

While you can’t always prevent them, you can reduce your risk of developing an aneurysm by maintaining a healthy lifestyle including: eating a heart-healthy diet (what’s good for the heart just so happens to be good for the brain); regularly exercising; maintaining a healthy blood pressure and body weight; and avoiding tobacco and drug use. Understanding the symptoms of brain aneurysms – and important actions to take — is critical to saving lives!

Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures. 

She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.

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