What’s a Brain Aneurysm?

If you or your loved one is diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, it can be a downright terrifying feeling. But we’re here to help you through it.

A brain aneurysm is a weak, bulging spot on the wall of a blood vessel in your brain. It looks like a skinny balloon.

It usually takes years for an aneurysm to grow. As blood is pushed through the blood vessel by your beating heart, the weak spot in the artery wall expands and the aneurysm gets bigger.

The problem with aneurysms is that eventually, the vessel wall becomes so thin that the aneurysm may burst. When this happens, blood enters the brain and causes a lot of damage. A ruptured aneurysm is a medical emergency.

Fortunately, most brain aneurysms do not rupture.

Symptoms of a Brain Aneurysm

Usually, an unruptured brain aneurysm shows no symptoms. Other times, it can show a lot. Here are symptoms to look out for:

  • Headache
  • Blurry vision
  • Pain above and behind your eye
  • Dilated pupil
  • Drooping eyelid
  • Numbness and weakness on one side of the face
  • Difficulty speaking

However, a ruptured aneurysm causes many symptoms. If you notice many of these symptoms occurring at once, you need immediate medical attention:

  • A sudden, intense headache (i.e., “the worst headache of your life”)
  • Feeling nauseous or vomiting
  • Sudden blurry vision  
  • Stiff neck
  • Losing consciousness
  • Sudden pain above or behind your eyes
  • Light sensitivity
  • Seizure
  • Sudden numbness and weakness
  • Sudden difficulty walking
  • Dizziness
  • Paralysis
  • Becoming disoriented
  • Drooping eyelid

A sudden, extreme headache is the No. 1 symptom of a ruptured brain aneurysm. If you experience this, call 911 immediately.

Diagnosing a Brain Aneurysm

A brain aneurysm is usually detected after it has ruptured and has become a medical emergency.

However, brain aneurysms can be detected before they burst via head-imaging tests, such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Most unruptured brain aneurysms are discovered when a person is getting screened for another condition.

If you have a family history of brain aneurysms or a congenital disorder (a condition that you were born with) that increases your risk of brain aneurysm, we recommend seeing us to discuss if screening is right for you.

Our neurologists will review your medical history and do a complete exam to determine if you are at risk of an aneurysm.

Besides an MRI or CT scan, we can diagnose an aneurysm by these two techniques:

  • Cerebrospinal fluid test: checks the fluid that surrounds your brain and spine. Your neurologist will perform the test if you’ve had symptoms of a ruptured aneurysm, but a CT scan hasn’t shown signs of it.
  • Cerebral angiogram: checks arteries in your brain. You doctor inserts a very thin tube in your groin, which goes past your heart to your brain. Dye is injected into the tube so X-rays can show whether there is a ruptured aneurysm. This is an invasive test and is only used when other diagnostic tests don’t give enough information.

What Causes Brain Aneurysms?

About one in 50 people in America have at least one unruptured aneurysm in their brain right now – most of them older than the age of 40.

A variety of factors can cause aneurysms. You many have been born with an abnormality in your artery wall that leads to aneurysm formation. You’re also at greater risk if you smoke, use illegal drugs (especially cocaine), have high blood pressure or have a head injury, infection or tumors. Certain disorders – Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and Marfan syndrome – increase your risk.

If you have an unruptured aneurysm, smoking and high blood pressure increase your risk of the aneurysm bursting.

How We Treat Brain Aneurysms  

If your neurologist finds an unruptured aneurysm, he or she will discuss the best next steps for you based on risk of rupture and other considerations. Your doctor will tell you how large your aneurysm is and its location and shape. After discussing your overall health and your family history, you and your doctor may decide to monitor the aneurysm with regular imaging or to pursue treatment.

If your aneurysm has already ruptured, your options are either open surgery or an endovascular (through your blood vessels) approach to shut off the aneurysm. These treatments can be used to treat both unruptured and ruptured aneurysms:

  • Surgical clipping: The neurosurgeon removes a portion of the skull during surgery to find the blood vessel that “feeds” the aneurysm.  A metal clip is placed on the neck of the aneurysm to stop blood flow.
  • Endovascular coiling: Your neurosurgeon puts a tube in your groin and threads it through your body via your arteries to reach the aneurysm. Then, a wire is placed into the tube and into the aneurysm, interrupting the blood flow and making it clot. This clotting process seals off the aneurysm.

Besides these techniques, neurologists can also help you manage pain and complications of a ruptured aneurysm with pain relievers as well as calcium channel blockers, which help lower blood pressure, or anti-seizure medications.

We also provide physical, speech and occupational rehabilitative therapy as needed.

Contact Us

If you have a family history of brain aneurysms or a condition that increases your risk of developing a brain aneurysm, play it safe.  Contact us online to schedule an appointment with our neurologists. We can help you decide if screening is right for you.