When I lived in Northern Virginia years ago, a bad snowstorm stopped traffic on the Beltway for hours after work. While stuck in that wintry gridlock, one of my coworkers suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm and never made it home that night. Tragic stories like these are what we immediately think of when we hear the words “brain aneurysm”; however, this medical condition doesn’t always have such an unhappy ending.
Most go undetected, but never rupture
Recently, when my aunt went in for an MRI, the doctor discovered a brain aneurysm instead of what they were actually looking for. Accidental diagnoses like this one are typical because these balloon-like bulges in the brain’s arterial wall usually cause no symptoms before they rupture.
According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, while about 6 million people in the U.S. have an unruptured brain aneurysm, many of them don’t even know it! While that’s a scary thought, a very high percentage of these aneurysms—50 to 80 percent—never rupture during the person’s lifetime and are only discovered through an autopsy.
What you can do about it
My aunt’s aneurysm was relatively small. Considering the risk of complications of surgical intervention, including stroke, blood clots, etc., she initially decided against any kind of treatment and instead chose to have her doctor simply watch the aneurysm over time. If it grew, she would consider taking action.
After a month or two, while the risk of rupture was still low, my aunt’s anxiety about what “could happen” had reached an all-time high. Last July, she underwent endovascular coiling, a minimally invasive procedure that uses a catheter inserted through an artery in the groin to reach the brain and introduce a wire coil into the aneurysm. This coil induces clotting to block blood flow to the aneurysm and significantly reduce the risk of rupture. (Coiling is just one of a few procedures recommended for aneurysms. Because it is still a fairly new procedure, long-term effectiveness has yet to be determined.)
The procedure was completely successful. My aunt is scheduled to have a follow-up magnetic resonance angiogram (MRA) to check the health of her blood vessels this week.
How to reduce your risk
Many factors, like genetics, trauma, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, can cause aneurysms. In my aunt’s case, high blood pressure was thought to be the culprit. Since she had the coiling six months ago, her doctor has used a variety of medications to get her blood pressure under control and help prevent future aneurysms.
While aneurysms are not always preventable, you can keep your blood vessels healthy and avoid these weaknesses by quitting smoking, drinking in moderation, eating a healthy diet and staying physically active.