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What’s a brain aneurysm? Q&A with two neurosurgeons

Thursday, September 07, 2023 11:35 AM

By NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health

Headaches are common physical problems among adults and kids. But a headache caused by a brain aneurysm or a ruptured aneurysm is an emergency that should be treated immediately.

How would you know if your headache is caused by a brain aneurysm?

brain aneurysms Dr. William Ares, a neurosurgeon with NorthShore University HealthSystem, and Dr. Daniel Heiferman, a neurosurgeon with Edward-Elmhurst Health, answer some vital questions about brain aneurysms in this Q&A.

What is a brain aneurysm?

A brain aneurysm is a weakness in the wall of a blood vessel in the brain. It often appears as a bubble or a blister on the side of a blood vessel. The presence of an aneurysm itself usually doesn’t cause people problems and many people may have aneurysms without knowing it. The problem can come when an aneurysm bursts, causing bleeding around the brain and causing people to be very sick or even die.

What are the signs and symptoms of a brain aneurysm?

The most common symptom of a burst brain aneurysm is the worst headache of your life. Patients usually describe what physicians call a “thunderclap headache,” which is a headache that comes out of nowhere and increases in severity very quickly. Patients can have other signs and symptoms as well. Sometimes a ruptured aneurysm can be confused for a stroke, where people have weakness on one side of the body, problems with their speech or even fall into an unconscious state.

What should you do if you have a brain aneurysm?

If you think you may have a ruptured aneurysm, you should call 911 immediately and go to a hospital that is experienced in dealing with this type of problem. A comprehensive stroke center is a hospital that has been recognized as providing the highest level of care to patients with stroke and cerebrovascular disease.

NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health has three comprehensive stroke centers: Edward Hospital, Evanston Hospital and Northwest Community Hospital.

If you have been diagnosed with an unruptured brain aneurysm, you should be evaluated by someone with extensive experience treating brain aneurysms who can assess your risk of bleeding and offer you the right treatment options for you. Management options may include close observation or fixing the aneurysm via surgical or endovascular (through the blood vessels) approaches.

How do people recover from a brain aneurysm?

Recovery from a ruptured brain aneurysm can take quite some time. Patients usually spend a few weeks in the hospital and many then require intensive inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation. It can take up to a year to recover and some patients may have persistent symptoms for life.

What are some innovations in care for people who have had this condition?

New and novel techniques are continually being developed that allow us to help patients in all aspects of aneurysm care. Less invasive surgical and endovascular techniques have allowed for treatment of ruptured and unruptured brain aneurysms with smaller incisions, shorter hospital stays and fewer side effects. Rehabilitation options have evolved to help patients recover faster, sometimes even at home through virtual reality.

Is it possible to prevent a brain aneurysm?

There is no known way to “prevent” a brain aneurysm. While there may be situations where aneurysms run in families, most aneurysms are sporadic or happen randomly.

We know that high blood pressure and cigarette smoking can be associated with an aneurysm presence, so work with your primary care doctor to keep hypertension under control and quit smoking.

There are certain circumstances where screening for brain aneurysms may make sense for patients with a significant family history of brain aneurysms. Discuss screening options with a neurosurgeon who regularly treats brain aneurysms.


Patients with brain aneurysms greatly benefit from the multidisciplinary team of specialists at the NorthShore Neurological Institute — including our expert stroke neurologists and neurosurgeons. Learn more.