By Kristin Fox
September is National Brain Aneurysm Awareness Month sponsored by the Brain Aneurysm Foundation to help educate people about the seriousness of cerebral aneurysms and the importance of early detection and screening. As we close out September, one local resident also wants to share her story about suffering a brain aneurysm to help raise awareness for others.
In the spring of 2021, Amy Barr of Franklin was working from home when she fell to the floor after feeling like she was stabbed in the head. Following her fall, she was life-flighted to the Mayo Clinic and almost died on the flight to the hospital. Barr had suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage also known as a ruptured brain aneurysm.
A brain aneurysm is a weak or thin spot on an artery in the brain that balloons or bulges out and fills with blood. The bulging aneurysm can put pressure on the nerves or brain tissue. It may also burst or rupture, spilling blood into the surrounding tissue (called a hemorrhage). A ruptured aneurysm can cause serious health problems such as hemorrhagic stroke, brain damage, coma and even death.
Most aneurysms are quite small and do not cause any symptoms unless they rupture. Most unruptured aneurysms are found while tests are being done for other conditions. Rarely, unruptured aneurysms may become large and press on nerves in the brain causing symptoms such as blurred or double vision, a drooping eyelid, a dilated pupil or weakness and/or numbness or pain above and behind the eye. Sometimes unruptured aneurysms can cause chronic headaches.
Ruptured brain aneurysms, or subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), usually cause bleeding into the space around the brain. Bleeding into the space around the brain can cause sudden symptoms such as sudden and severe headache, often described the “worst headache of my life.” In addition to the symptoms for an unruptured aneurysms, a SAH can cause nausea/vomiting, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, seizure, loss of consciousness and confusion.
All unruptured aneurysms have the potential to rupture and cause bleeding within the brain or surrounding area. One in 50 people have a brain aneurysm, and sadly, over 40 percent don’t know they have an aneurysm, until it is too late when it ruptures and is fatal. In the United States, approximately 30,000 Americans each year suffer a brain aneurysm rupture. Each year, between 3,000 and 4,500 people in the United States with ruptured brain aneurysms die before reaching the hospital.
Doctors treated Barr for the aneurysm by drilling a hole in her head and draining three bags of blood. After spending a month in the intensive care unit, she returned home but needed therapy.
“I was given little kid puzzles to put together and children’s memory games like SpongeBob Square Pants while doing therapy,” said Barr. “I had to relearn a lot; I couldn’t even remember how to write a check. It was difficult as I had short-term memory loss, cognition issues and aphasia. I still have these issues but I’ve learned how to work around it. Life as a survivor is like Finding Dory and 50 First Dates with a little Ground Hog Day mixed in.”
“I was 45 and climbing that corporate ladder working as a director of corporate communications for a subsidiary owned by five Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans,” she added. “Well that ended, and I was awarded disability.”
Like Barr, most survivors have long term side effects including fatigue, diminished sense of smell and/or taste, headaches, vision problems, low back pain, constipation and slowed reaction time.
There are many famous people who are brain aneurysm survivors including Sharon Stone, Bret Michaels, Emilia Clark, Quincy Jones, Joni Mitchell and Randy Travis. Bruce Willis has asphasia, a lifelong side effect, which Barr also suffers from.
“I also have asphasia, and it’s very frustrating,” said Barr. “The words are in your head, but they come out all wrong or not at all.”
Help spread the awareness of brain aneurysms by recognizing the risk factors such as:
Family History — While brain aneurysms can happen suddenly to anyone, those with a family history of a brain aneurysm should take extra precautionary steps. Individuals who are over the age of 25 and have a family history of aneurysms, especially first-degree relatives, are particularly at risk and should get screened every 5 to 10 years.
Cigarette and Drug Use — Smoking and illicit drug usage have shown to be factors related to both brain aneurysm formation and ruptures. This is especially true for those with a family history of aneurysms. Individuals who have quit smoking are still at risk and should consider getting screened.
Gender and Race — Those most susceptible to brain aneurysms fall between the ages of 35 – 60. While cerebral aneurysms can occur in children, the majority form after the age of 40.
Women also have an increased risk, with an occurrence of 3:2 more cases when compared to men. Both women and men are encouraged to get screened if they have a family history of brain aneurysms, regardless of their family member’s gender.
Previous Head Injury –Traumatic head injuries, especially direct brain trauma, can lead to the formation of a cerebral aneurysm. Those who have experienced such injuries should follow up with their doctor and find out if getting screened is best for their condition.
High Blood Pressure — The risk of having a brain aneurysm rupture is greatly increased in people with a history of high blood pressure, or hypertension. While high blood pressure doesn’t necessarily cause brain aneurysms, heavy lifting or increased activity can cause pressure to rise, causing an existing aneurysm to burst.