Sometimes it’s easy to know when you should see a doctor, such as if you break a bone or have a serious car accident. Other times can be less obvious, such as when you have a really bad headache.
Headaches are incredibly common. In fact, 1 in 20 adults has frequent headaches worldwide, and at least 1 in 7 has migraines. Even though headaches are a common issue, they can also be a sign of a very serious problem: a brain aneurysm. Unfortunately, these headache symptoms can be confused with those seen during a bad headache. This can cause people to delay getting treatment, which could increase the risk of significant harm and even death.
In this blog, board-certified neurosurgeon Joseph Watson, MD, at Cerebrum MD in Tyson’s Corner, Vienna, Virginia, discusses what separates an aneurysm from a bad headache.
Understanding brain aneurysms
When you have a brain aneurysm, you have a weak spot in a blood vessel within your brain. As it fills with blood, it starts to bulge. While aneurysms can take several forms, nearly 90% develop as a berry-like shape on the outside of an artery.
An estimated 6 million Americans have aneurysms, and between 50-80% of them never rupture. These aneurysms usually don’t cause any issue and often get detected during other medical tests.
The dangers that come with aneurysms occur when they leak or rupture, which causes bleeding within your brain. Even though this usually lasts a few seconds, this blood can damage or kill surrounding cells and increase pressure within your skull. Without treatment, the blood and oxygen supply to your brain can get interrupted, leading to severe complications and even death.
Of the approximately 30,000 people who have a ruptured aneurysm each year, 40% end up fatal. That’s why recognizing the signs of a brain aneurysm plays a critical role in getting treatment as quickly as possible.
What sets a brain aneurysm apart from a bad headache
One of the most common signs of an aneurysm is a sudden and very severe headache. Additional symptoms can include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sensitivity to light
- Blurred or double vision
- Neck stiffness
- A drooping eyelid
- Confusion or loss of consciousness
Because a bad headache — especially a migraine — can share some of these symptoms, such as visual disturbances, nausea, and vomiting — it may be tempting to shrug it off. However, there are significant differences to watch for. For example, a migraine often comes on gradually, includes seeing lights or an “aura” before your headache begins, and involves throbbing or pain on one side of your head.
When you have a leaking or ruptured aneurysm, it’s typically sudden and more intense than anything you’ve ever had in your life. You should always consider a sudden headache that feels like “the worst headache of your life” a medical emergency, and get care as quickly as possible.
Recognizing your risks
In addition to sudden and severe head pain, other factors can increase your chances of having an aneurysm, including:
- Being between 35-60 years old, especially women after menopause
- Having high blood pressure
- Abusing alcohol or drugs, especially cocaine
- Sustaining a head injury
- Having inherited disorders or a family history of brain aneurysms
You can also have elevated risks of aneurysms because of conditions present since birth, such as weakened blood vessels.
Seeking treatment for an aneurysm as quickly as possible can help reduce your chances of suffering severe damage.
For more information on brain aneurysms, and to learn about your personal risks, book an appointment over the phone with Cerebrum MD today.