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Brain Aneurysms: Causes, Sympto...

Brain Aneurysms: Causes, Symptoms and Diagnosis


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A brain (cerebral) aneurysm is a weak or thin spot on a blood vessel in the brain that balloons out and fills with blood.




What causes a Cerebral Aneurysm?

Cerebral aneurysms can be congenital, resulting from an inborn abnormality in an artery wall.  Cerebral aneurysms are also more common in people with certain genetic diseases, such as connective tissue disorders and polycystic kidney disease, and certain circulatory disorders, such as arteriovenous malformations (snarled tangles of arteries and veins in the brain that disrupt blood flow).

Other causes include trauma or injury to the head, high blood pressure, infection, tumors, atherosclerosis (a blood vessel disease in which fats build up on the inside of artery walls) and other diseases of the vascular system, cigarette smoking, and drug abuse.  Some investigators have speculated that oral contraceptives may increase the risk of developing aneurysms.

Aneurysms that result from an infection in the arterial wall are called mycotic aneurysms.  Cancer-related aneurysms are often associated with primary or metastatic tumors of the head and neck.  Drug abuse, particularly the habitual use of cocaine, can inflame blood vessels and lead to the development of brain aneurysms.




What are the symptoms?

Most cerebral aneurysms do not show symptoms until they either become very large or burst.  Small, unchanging aneurysms generally will not produce symptoms, whereas a larger aneurysm that is steadily growing may press on tissues and nerves.  Symptoms may include pain above and behind the eye; numbness, weakness, or paralysis on one side of the face; dilated pupils; and vision changes.  When an aneurysm hemorrhages, an individual may experience a sudden and extremely severe headache, double vision, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck, and/or loss of consciousness.  Individuals usually describe the headache as "the worst headache of my life" and it is generally different in severity and intensity from other headaches people may experience.  "Sentinel" or warning headaches may result from an aneurysm that leaks for days to weeks prior to rupture.  Only a minority of individuals have a sentinel headache prior to aneurysm rupture.

Other signs that a cerebral aneurysm has burst include nausea and vomiting associated with a severe headache, a drooping eyelid, sensitivity to light, and change in mental status or level of awareness.  Some individuals may have seizures.  Individuals may lose consciousness briefly or go into prolonged coma.  People experiencing this "worst headache," especially when it is combined with any other symptoms, should seek immediate medical attention.




How are Cerebral Aneurysms diagnosed?

Most cerebral aneurysms go unnoticed until they rupture or are detected by brain imaging that may have been obtained for another condition.  Several diagnostic methods are available to provide information about the aneurysm and the best form of treatment.  The tests are usually obtained after a subarachnoid hemorrhage, to confirm the diagnosis of an aneurysm.

Angiography is a dye test used to analyze the arteries or veins.  An intracerebral angiogram can detect the degree of narrowing or obstruction of an artery or blood vessel in the brain, head, or neck, and can identify changes in an artery or vein such as a weak spot like an aneurysm.  It is used to diagnose stroke and to precisely determine the location, size, and shape of a brain tumor, aneurysm, or blood vessel that has bled.  This test is usually performed in a hospital angiography suite.  Following the injection of a local anesthetic, a flexible catheter is inserted into an artery and threaded through the body to the affected artery.  A small amount of contrast dye (one that is highlighted on x-rays) is released into the bloodstream and allowed to travel into the head and neck.  A series of x-rays is taken and changes, if present, are noted.

Computed tomography (CT) of the head is a fast, painless, noninvasive diagnostic tool that can reveal the presence of a cerebral aneurysm and determine, for those aneurysms that have burst, if blood has leaked into the brain.  This is often the first diagnostic procedure ordered by a physician following suspected rupture.  X-rays of the head are processed by a computer as two-dimensional cross-sectional images, or "slices," of the brain and skull.  Occasionally a contrast dye is injected into the bloodstream prior to scanning.  This process, called CT angiography, produces sharper, more detailed images of blood flow in the brain arteries.  CT is usually conducted at a testing facility or hospital outpatient setting.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses computer-generated radio waves and a powerful magnetic field to produce detailed images of the brain and other body structures.  Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) produces more detailed images of blood vessels.  The images may be seen as either three-dimensional pictures or two-dimensional cross-slices of the brain and vessels.  These painless, noninvasive procedures can show the size and shape of an un-ruptured aneurysm and can detect bleeding in the brain.

Cerebrospinal fluid analysis may be ordered if a ruptured aneurysm is suspected.  Following application of a local anesthetic, a small amount of this fluid (which protects the brain and spinal cord) is removed from the subarachnoid space - located between the spinal cord and the membranes that surround it-by surgical needle and tested to detect any bleeding or brain hemorrhage.  In individuals with suspected subarachnoid hemorrhage, this procedure is usually done in a hospital.




Source: Information provided courtesy of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

NINDS health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or any other Federal agency. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient's medical history.



  • See also:

                   o   Brain Aneurysms- Overview

                   o   Brain Aneurysms- Classification and prognosis






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