An intense headache may be concerning if you don't usually have headaches. Some people may even think they're are having brain aneurysm symptoms. While this is possible, brain aneurysms are really not very common. They affect up to 3 and 5 million people in the United States, but less than 3 percent of these people experience any bleeding in the brain. That being said, brain aneurysms can cause serious injury to the brain, so it's important to know what they are and what to look for.
What Is a Brain Aneurysm?
An aneurysm is a spot on your blood vessel wall that has stretched and bulged out, causing a weak spot. When this occurs in a blood vessel in the brain, it's called a brain aneurysm or a cerebral aneurysm.
Most people with brain aneurysms have no symptoms. They may never find out they have a brain aneurysm, or it may be found by accident when their brain is scanned for some other reason.
Symptoms to Know
About 0.5 percent to 3 percent of people with brain aneurysms do develop bleeding. The aneurysm may slowly leak blood, or the aneurysm may rupture and cause a sudden flow of blood into the brain. There is no way of telling which aneurysms will burst and which will not.
The most common symptom of a leaking aneurysm is a sudden and severe headache. Brain aneurysm symptoms indicative of a ruptured aneurysm include many that are similar to stroke symptoms:
- Sudden, severe headache
- Nausea and vomiting
- Visual disturbances
- Sensitivity to light
- Loss of consciousness
- Slurry speech or difficulty speaking
Causes of Aneurysms
Doctors aren't sure why brain aneurysms develop, but they do know that some people are at higher risk of having one than others. For example, brain aneurysms usually affect people over the age of 40, rarely younger, and more women have brain aneurysms than men. A few other risk factors are:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Family history of aneurysms
- Congenital abnormality in the blood vessel wall, which means you were born with it
- Using drugs, most commonly cocaine
- Brain tumor or traumatic brain injury
If you have a brain aneurysm, there are also risk factors that increase the chances of the aneurysm rupturing. They include:
- Being of African-American or Hispanic descent
- Having high blood pressure
What Should You Do if You Think You Have an Aneurysm?
If you have a family history of brain aneurysms or you feel like you may have one, speak with your doctor about your concerns. To detect a brain aneurysm, you would have to have a brain scan that allows your doctor to see the blood vessels in your brain as the blood shows through. Possible types of brain scans include:
- Computed tomographic angiography (CTA): This type of brain scan follows dye that was injected into your vein as it travels through the blood vessels in your brain.
- Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA): An MRA is similar to a CT scan, but while a CT scan uses radiation similar to X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging machines use magnetic and radio waves to make the images on a screen.
- Diagnostic cerebral angiography (DCA): Although a DCA can detect smaller aneurysms than a CTA or MRA can, this test is not usually a first choice as it is an invasive procedure. A small incision is made in your groin so your doctor can insert a long catheter (thin tube) that is threaded up to your neck and your brain. A dye is injected through the catheter, and X-rays are taken of your brain as the dye flows through the blood vessels.
A ruptured brain aneurysm is an emergency. Surgery to stop the bleeding by clipping the blood vessel or a bypass are the usual treatments.
If the aneurysm hasn't ruptured, your options vary:
- Medical and lifestyle: If you have high blood pressure, managing your blood pressure is an important part of reducing your risk of a rupture. Not smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising can all help reduce the risk as well. You may also be told to avoid stimulants, like caffeine, and strenuous activity.
- Embolization: Using a catheter inserted through your groin, your doctor inserts small metal coils or an embolic agent (similar to a glue) to protect the wall and stop the bleeding.
- Surgery: This procedure is similar to surgery to repair a ruptured aneurysm.
Learning you have a brain aneurysm can be frightening. If you have received this news, it's important to speak with your doctor about your options and what you can do to minimize your risk of complications.