The first time I ever heard of a brain aneurysm was in 2001 when female Gladiator star, Christy Skoglund, known to fans as Sahara, died of one at the age of 33. Her death was widely publicised at the time, and I remember thinking how frightening the concept of an aneurysm was and that any one of us could get one at any time, without warning.
I incorrectly assumed, as I think many people do, that an aneurysm is a blood clot, something that just suddenly appears. I didn’t understand that it’s often present from birth, starting out as a weakened area in the artery, which grows over time. Pumping blood enters the little sack causing it to enlarge and deteriorate slowly, like blowing up a balloon, until one day, it bursts, causing bleeding in the brain.
One in 50 people are living with a brain aneurysm and don’t know it. Every 18 minutes someone experiences a brain aneurysm rupture. Half are fatal, and two-thirds of people who survive will live with a permanent brain injury that will alter their lives forever. Half the victims are younger than 50 and most are women.
Whilst most aneurysms present no warning signs and rupture with a blinding headache that survivors describe as “the worst headache of my life,” some people do experience symptoms pre-rupture such as chronic headache, blurred vision or difficulty speaking.
My brain aneurysm was discovered when I was 42 years old. I went to see a neurologist after experiencing headaches for a month. My doctor immediately sent me for a CTA (computerized tomography angiography). A dye is injected into the arteries so that an outline of the vessels can be seen and any potential aneurysms detected. The cause of my aneurysm was congenital, a weakened area of the artery evident since birth that just grew and grew over time. Two weeks later, I had the necessary surgery to prevent it from ever bursting; a craniotomy by which a portion of the skull is removed and a titanium clip is secured to the base of the aneurysm where it connects to the artery, and the skull re-attached with titanium plates and screws.
Kim Bosworth, 37, was off from work for two weeks with what she thought was a migraine. She went to two different doctors before the third sent her for a CT scan that diagnosed the brain aneurysm. “I knew something wasn’t right. I had a feeling, and I kept telling my doctor it’s more than just a migraine,” she said. She had her aneurysm coiled, whereby a catheter is inserted into the artery in the groin and navigated all the way up into the aneurysm. Titanium coils are then packed into the aneurysm through this catheter to block the aneurysm and prevent it from rupture.
Julie Aitken, 60, a primary school teacher, had a headache for three weeks, along with flu-like symptoms – without the respiratory issues, but had aching muscles and felt hot and cold. She was on painkillers constantly. She needed a medical certificate to take time off from work, so she went to see her General Practitioner who sent her for a CT scan. She was diagnosed with a giant aneurysm and sent straight to hospital where her brain aneurysm was clipped a few days later.
Debbie Sherrington, 44, a married mum of two children, suffered horribly with migraines for about two years before her two brain aneurysms finally ruptured. She is lucky to have survived. “I’m pretty sure if I’d had a scan or my symptoms looked at, it would have showed up,” she says.
Julia Clarizio, 55, is another person lucky to be alive. She had migraine-like headaches for about five years before her brain aneurysm ruptured. She was 51 at the time. Her doctor suspected the migraines were related to menopause, so she never had it checked out. “I didn’t know anything about aneurysms,” she says.
Many people suffer from ongoing, chronic headaches and ignore them, either putting them down to stress, muscle tension, or sinus issues. There are many people who have survived a brain aneurysm by having the good fortune of having a headache and the good sense to get it checked out.
It’s important for people to be aware of what a brain aneurysm is and what the potential symptoms are, and whilst in most cases they do rupture suddenly without warning, they are present in your brain before they do and can be detected. There are many reasons why someone may experience chronic headache and it does not necessarily mean they are living with a brain aneurysm, but after my experience, the advice I would give anyone suffering from chronic headache is to rule out the possibility.
Brain Aneurysm Facts
There are almost 500,000 deaths worldwide caused by brain aneurysm ruptures every year.
Risk factors include congenital defect, family history of brain aneurysms, age over 40, women have increased risk, high blood pressure or hypertension, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Polycystic Kidney Disease, Marfan Syndrome and Fibromuscular Dysplasia, smoking, and traumatic head injury.
Unruptured brain aneurysm symptoms include localised headache, dilated pupils, blurred or double vision, pain above and behind eye, weakness and numbness, and difficulty speaking.
Coiling and surgical clipping are the two main types of treatment for brain aneurysms, depending on the size, location, and type. In some cases, monitoring the growth will be the suggested option if the brain aneurysm is not too large.