A cerebral aneurysm occurs at a weak point in the wall of a blood vessel (artery) that supplies blood to the brain. Because of the flaw, the artery wall bulges outward and fills with blood. This bulge is called an aneurysm. An aneurysm can rupture, spilling blood into the surrounding body tissue. A ruptured cerebral aneurysm can cause permanent brain damage, disability, or death.
A cerebral aneurysm can occur anywhere in the brain. Aneurysms can have several shapes. The saccular aneurysm, once called a berry aneurysm, resembles a piece of fruit dangling from a branch. Saccular aneurysms are usually found at a branch in the blood vessel where they balloon out by a thin neck. Saccular cerebral aneurysms most often occur at the branch points of large arteries at the base of the brain. Aneurysms may also take the form of a bulge in one wall of the artery--a lateral aneurysm--or a widening of the entire artery--a fusiform aneurysm.
The greatest danger of aneurysms is rupture. Approximately 50-75% of stricken people survive an aneurysmal rupture. A ruptured aneurysm spills blood into the brain or into the fluid-filled area that surrounds the brain tissue. Bleeding into this area, called the subarachnoid space, is referred to as subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH). About 25,000 people suffer a SAH each year. It is estimated that people with unruptured aneurysm have an annual 1-2% risk of hemorrhage. Under age 40, more men experience SAH. After age 40, more women than men are affected.
Most people who have suffered a SAH from a ruptured aneurysm did not know that the aneurysm even existed. Based on autopsy studies, medical researchers estimate that 1-5% of the population has some type of cerebral aneurysm. Aneurysms rarely occur in the very young or the very old; about 60% of aneurysms are diagnosed in people between ages 40-65.
Some aneurysms may have a genetic link and run in families. The genetic link has not been completely proven and a pattern of inheritance has not been determined. Some studies seem to show that first-degree relatives of people who suffered aneurysmal SAH are more likely to have aneurysms themselves. These studies reported that such immediate family members were four times more likely to have aneurysms than the general population. Other studies do not confirm these findings. Better evidence links aneurysms to certain rare diseases of the connective tissue. These diseases include Marfan syndrome, pseudoxanthoma elasticum, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and fibromuscular dysplasia. Polycystic kidney disease is also associated with cerebral aneurysms.
These diseases are also associated with an increased risk of aneurysmal rupture. Certain other conditions raise the risk of rupture, too. Most aneurysms that rupture are a half-inch or larger in diameter. Size is not the only factor, however, because smaller aneurysms also rupture. Cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and recreational drug use (for example, use of cocaine) have been linked with an increased risk. The role, if any, of high blood pressure has not been determined. Some studies have implicated high blood pressure in aneurysm formation and rupture, but people with normal blood pressure also experience aneurysms and SAHs. High blood pressure may be a risk factor but not the most important one. Pregnancy, labor, and delivery also seem to increase the possibility that an aneurysm might rupture, but not all doctors agree. Physical exertion and use of oral contraceptive are not suspected causes for aneurysmal rupture.
Causes & symptoms
Cerebral aneurysms can be caused by brain trauma, infection, hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), or abnormal rapid cell growth (neoplastic disease), but most seem to arise from a congenital, or developmental, defect. These congenital aneurysms occur more frequently in women. Whatever the cause may be, the inner wall of the blood vessel is abnormally thin and the pressure of the blood flow causes an aneurysm to form.
Most aneurysms go unnoticed until they rupture. However, 10-15% of unruptured cerebral aneurysms are found because of their size or their location. Common warning signs include symptoms that affect only one eye, such as an enlarged pupil, a drooping eyelid, or pain above or behind the eye. Other symptoms are a localized headache, unsteady gait, a temporary problem with sight, double vision, or numbness in the face.
Some aneurysms bleed occasionally without rupturing. Symptoms of such an aneurysm develop gradually. The symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting, neck pain, black-outs, ringing in the ears, dizziness, or seeing spots.
Eighty to ninety percent of aneurysms are not diagnosed until after they have ruptured. Rupture is not always a sudden event. Nearly 50% of patients who have aneurysmal SAHs also experience "the warning leak phenomenon." Persons with warning leak symptoms have sudden, atypical headaches that occur days or weeks before the actual rupture. These headaches are referred to as sentinel headaches. Nausea, vomiting, and dizziness may accompany sentinel headaches. Unfortunately, these symptoms can be confused with tension headaches or migraines, and treatment can be delayed until rupture occurs.
When an aneurysm ruptures, most victims experience a sudden, extremely severe headache. This headache is typically described as the worst headache of the victim's life. Nausea and vomiting commonly accompany the headache. The person may experience a short loss of consciousness or prolonged coma. Other common signs of a SAH include a stiff neck, fever, and a sensitivity to light. About 25% of victims experience neurological problems linked to specific areas of the brain, swelling of the brain due to fluid accumulation (hydrocephalus), or seizure.
Based on the clinical symptoms, a doctor will run several tests to confirm an aneurysm or an SAH. A computed tomography scan (CT or CAT) of the head is the initial procedure. A magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI) may be done instead of a CT scan. MRI, however, is not as sensitive as CT for detecting subarachnoid blood. A CT scan can determine whether there has been a hemorrhage and can assist in pinpointing the location of the aneurysm. The scan is most useful when it is done within 72 hours of the rupture. Later scans may miss the signs of hemorrhage.
If the CT scan is negative for a hemorrhage or provides an unclear diagnosis, the doctor will order a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis, also called a lumbar puncture. In this procedure, a small amount of cerebrospinal fluid is removed from the lower back and examined for traces of blood and blood-breakdown products. If this test is positive, cerebral angiography is used to map the brain's blood vessels and the damaged area. The angiography is done to pinpoint the aneurysm's location. About 15% of people who experience SAH have more than one aneurysm. For this reason, angiography should include both the common carotid artery that feeds the front of the brain and the vertebral artery that feeds the base of the brain. Occasionally, the angiography fails to find the aneurysm and must be repeated. If seizures occur, electroencephalography (EEG) may be used to measure the electrical activity of the brain.
If an aneurysm has not ruptured and is not causing any symptoms, it may be left untreated. Because there is a 1-2% chance of rupture per year, the cumulative risk over a number of years may justify surgical treatment. However, if the aneurysm is small or in a place that would be difficult to reach, or if the person who has the aneurysm is in poor health, the surgical treatment may be a greater risk than the aneurysm. Risk of rupture is higher for people who have more than one aneurysm. Unruptured aneurysm would probably be treated with a surgical procedure called the clip ligation, as described below.
The primary treatment for a ruptured aneurysm involves stabilizing the victim's condition, treating the immediate symptoms, and promptly assessing further treatment options, especially surgical procedures. The patient may require mechanical ventilation, oxygen, and fluids. Medications may be given to prevent major secondary complications such as seizures, rebleeding, and vasospasm (narrowing of the affected blood vessel). Vasospasm decreases blood flow to the brain and causes the death of nerve cells. A drug such as nimodipine (Nimotop) may help prevent vasospasm by relaxing the smooth muscle tissue of the arteries. Even with treatment, however, vasospasm may cause stroke or death.
To prevent further hemorrhage from the aneurysm, it must be removed from circulation. In general, surgical procedures should be performed as soon as possible to prevent rebleeding. The chances that aneurysm will rebleed are greatest in the first 24 hours, and vasospasm usually does not occur until 72 hours or more after rupture. If the patient is in poor condition or if there is vasospasm or other complication, surgical procedures may be delayed. The preferred surgical method is a clip ligation in which a clip is placed around the base of the aneurysm to block it off from circulation. Surgical coating, wrapping, or trapping of the aneurysm may also be performed. These procedures do not completely remove the aneurysm from circulation, however, and there is some risk that it may rebleed in the future. Newer techniques that look promising include balloon embolization, a procedure that blocks the aneurysm with an inflatable membrane introduced by means of a catheter inserted through the artery.
An unruptured aneurysm may not cause any symptoms over an entire lifetime. Surgical clip ligation will ensure that it won't rupture, but it may be better to leave the aneurysm alone in some cases. Familial cerebral aneurysms may rupture earlier than those without a genetic link.
The outlook is not as good for a person who suffers a ruptured aneurysm. Fifteen to twenty-five percent of people who experience a ruptured aneurysm do not survive. An additional 25-50% die as a result of complications associated with the hemorrhage. Of the survivors, 15-50% suffer permanent brain damage and disability. These conditions are caused by the death of nerve cells. Nerve cells can be destroyed by the hemorrhage itself or by complications from the hemorrhage, such as vasospasm or hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus, a dilatation (expansion) of the fluid-filled cavity surrounding the brain, occurs in about 15% of cases. Immediate medical treatment is vital to prevent further complications and brain damage in those who survive the initial rupture. Patients who survive SAH and aneurysm clipping are unlikely to die from events related to SAH.
There are no known methods to prevent an aneurysm from forming. If an aneurysm is discovered before it ruptures, it may be surgically removed. CT or MRI angiography may be recommended for relatives of patients with familial cerebral aneurysms.
- Existing at birth.
- Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
- A rare inheritable disease of the connective tissue marked by very elastic skin, very loose joints, and very fragile body tissue.
- A technique to stop or prevent hemorrhage by introducing a foreign mass, such as an air-filled membrane (balloon), into a blood vessel to block the flow of blood.
- Fibromuscular dysplasia
- A disorder that causes unexplained narrowing of arteries and high blood pressure.
- Magnetic resonance angiography
- A noninvasive diagnostic technique that uses radiowaves to map the internal anatomy of the blood vessels.
- Marfan syndrome
- An inheritable disorder that affects the skeleton, joints, and blood vessels. Major indicators are excessively long arms and legs, lax joints, and vascular defects.
- Nimodipine (Nimotop)
- A calcium-channel blocker, that is, a drug that relaxes arterial smooth muscle by slowing the movement of calcium across cell walls.
- Polycystic kidney disease
- An abnormal condition in which the kidneys are enlarged and contain many cysts.
- Pseudoxanthoma elasticum
- A hereditary disorder of the connective, or elastic, tissue marked by premature aging and breakdown of the skin and degeneration of the arteries that leads to hemorrhages.
- Subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH)
- Loss of blood into the subarachnoid space, the fluid-filled area that surrounds the brain tissue.
- Narrowing of a blood vessel caused by a spasm of the smooth muscle of the vessel wall.
For Your Information
- Smith, Robert R., Yahgoub Tarassoli, and Yuri Zubkov. Cerebral Aneurysms: Microvascular and Endovascular Management. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1994.
- Leblanc, Richard. "Familial Cerebral Aneurysms." Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences 24 (3) (August 1997): 191-199.
- Olafsson, Elias, Allen Hauser, and Gunnar Gudmundsson. "A Population-Based Study of the Prognosis of Ruptured Cerebral Aneurysms: Mortality and Recurrence of Subarachnoid Hemorrhage." Neurology 48 (May 1997): 1191-1195.
- Sawin, Paul D., and Christopher M. Loftus. "Diagnosis of Spontaneous Subarachnoid Hemorrhage." American Family Physician 55 (1) (January 1997): 145.
- Yasui, Nobuyuki, et al. "Long-term Follow-up Study of Unruptured Intracranial Aneurysms." Neurosurgery 40 (6) (June 1997): 1155-1160.
- The Brain Aneurysm Foundation, Inc. 66 Canal Street, Boston, MA 02114. (617) 723-3870. http://neurosurgery.mgh.harvard.edu/baf/.
- Bernadini, Gary L. "Intracerebral Aneurysms." http://www.columbia.edu/~mdt1/cerebfaq.
- "The Brain Aneurysm Report." Winter 1995-96. http://neurosurgery.mgh.harvard.edu/rpt111.htm.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.