Emilia Clarke is raising awareness of brain aneurysms, but what do we actually know about them?

What actually is a brain aneurysm? A brain (or cerebral) aneurysm is formed when an area in the wall of an artery or blood vessel supplying blood to the brain is weakened.

The weakened area is pushed outwards by blood passing through, causing it to “balloon” into a blister-like shape. As aneurysms grow, symptoms can occur as they put pressure on the surrounding tissue. However, in many cases, they go unnoticed until they become very large or rupture.

Call us hypochondriacs, but since hearing Emilia Clarke’s heart-wrenching account of her near-death experience, we’ve found ourselves wondering whether we too are at risk.

After all, Emilia filmed a whole season of GOT, walked endless red carpets and eloquently held her own on numerous chat show sofas before her brain aneurysm made itself known. And she was in the gym at the time, may we add.

Emilia Clarke

To put our minds at ease, we’ve decided to do some digging on the subject. What causes a brain aneurysm? How can they be detected? And what should we do if our niggles actually match up with the symptoms? We speak to the team at Headway – a registered brain injury association – to find out the facts.

Do we know what causes them?

There are several reasons why this may happen, although an exact cause isn’t always clear, as many aneurysms develop without causing noticeable symptoms. They are more likely to affect women and those under the age of 60, while there can also be a genetic link. Other factors that can significantly increase the risk of an aneurysm developing and rupturing include high blood pressure, smoking and substance abuse. Being overweight can also increase the risk.

Which early symptoms should we look our for?

In some cases, an unruptured aneurysm will cause problems by putting pressure on the surrounding brain tissue. Symptoms can include visual disturbances, pain above or around the eye, numbness or weakness in the face, difficulty speaking, headaches, balance problems, difficulty concentrating, and problems with short-term memory.

What happens if you ignore the signs?

Not all cases of unruptured brain aneurysms need active treatment and for many people, they may not know the aneurysm is there, as it may not cause any noticeable symptoms. However, accurate early diagnosis and treatment of a ruptured brain aneurysm is crucial and immediate medical attention should be sought. Symptoms can include a sudden, agonising headache, feeling or being sick, stiff neck or neck pain, sensitivity to light, blurred or double vision, sudden confusion, fainting or loss of consciousness, seizures, or weakness on one side of the body or in any limbs.

A ruptured aneurysm causes serious bleeding into the surrounding tissue and damages the brain. This is known as a brain haemorrhage, which may be fatal and can often result in neurological impairment or disability.

What is the easiest way to detect a brain aneurysm?

A brain aneurysm is usually diagnosed using an MRI scan and angiography (MRA) or a CT scan and angiography (CTA). Angiography is a medical imaging technique, using a special dye injected into the blood stream in order to visualise someone’s blood vessels.

An MRI scan is often used to detect unruptured aneurysms. This type of scan uses magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the brain. A CT scan on the other hand is often used if it is thought that the aneurysm has ruptured and there is bleeding into the surrounding tissue. This type of scan takes a series of X-rays, which are built up into a 3D image.

If a ruptured aneurysm is not detected by a CT scan but the symptoms of a patient strongly suggest otherwise, a test called a lumbar puncture will usually be performed. During this procedure, a needle is inserted into the lower part of the spine to remove a sample of fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. This sample can then be analysed for signs of blood.

Is there any way to prevent brain aneurysms?

The development of a brain aneurysm can’t always be prevented. There are certain risk factors that can be modified to reduce the risk, for example, quitting smoking, controlling high blood pressure and maintaining a healthy weight.

Still have unanswered questions?

For more information on the topic, you can call Headway’s helpline on 0808 800 2244. If you are experiencing symptoms connected with an unruptured brain aneurysm, and feel you may need medical attention, dial the NHS helpline on 111. If you believe you are experiencing a ruptured brain aneurysm, or brain haemorrhage, dial 999 immediately.

Stay aware, stay safe!

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