Women at higher risk for brain aneurysms
Lindsay Bowerman was sitting at her kitchen table preparing to take her sons to their swim lessons when she felt a “snap” in her head that was immediately followed by intense pressure and the worst pain she had ever experienced. The healthy 36-year-old woman had just suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm.
A brain aneurysm is a when a weak spot on an artery balloons out and fills with blood. It is estimated that more than 6 million people in the United States have an unruptured brain aneurysm, with approximately 30,000 rupturing each year. Forty percent of ruptured brain aneurysms lead to death, and women are one and one half times more likely to have brain aneurysms than men.
“While we don’t know the reasons why, women are more likely to have brain aneurysms than men,” said Gavin Britz, M.D., a Houston Methodist neurosurgeon and director of the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute. “So it’s really important for women to know the risk factors and take steps to reduce their risk.”
Smoking, high blood pressure, and heavy alcohol consumption can increase a woman’s risk of suffering a ruptured brain aneurysm. Having an immediate family member with an aneurysm could also indicate that a woman is at higher risk. While aneurysms are most common between the ages of 35 and 60, they can still exist at any age. A woman with any of these risk factors should reduce her risk by quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, working with her doctor to safely manage blood pressure and talking with her doctor about her family history of aneurysms.
“Even if a woman has none of these risk factors, she’s still at risk for a brain aneurysm due to her gender,” said Britz, chairman of the Houston Methodist Hospital department of neurosurgery. “Lindsay is the perfect example of this. She had none of the known risk factors. That’s why all women should be familiar with the warning signs – a sudden severe headache or head pain, a very stiff neck, sudden vision changes, hearing or feeling a loud ‘snap’ in their head, or any of these symptoms coupled with nausea or vomiting.”
After feeling the snap in her head, Bowerman managed to call her father who happened to be close by. When he arrived five minutes later, he found her on the floor screaming in pain. When Bowerman arrived at Houston Methodist Hospital, Britz treated her with a coil embolization, which involves placing soft metal coils in the artery at the site of the rupture to stop the bleeding. He told Bowerman’s family that she had a 30% chance of survival if she woke up within 72 hours.
“My sister was the first person to arrive back at the hospital the morning after surgery after my family was sent home with those numbers,” Bowerman said. “She said she heard my voice as soon as she got off the elevator and later told me it was the first tears of joy and hope she cried since the rupture. Days later, I knew who I was and could understand I was in the hospital, but I kept thinking it was 1999. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that it was 2018.”
Bowerman was in the ICU for 15 days, but suffered no permanent damage from the aneurysm.
“I never expected that I would go from being a perfectly healthy 36-year-old woman to nearly dying in front of my six and four-year-old sons,” Bowerman said. “They still refer to it as the day of mommy’s bad headache. I think of it as the day I could have died, and every single day I think about how lucky I am that instead I get to be here and see my boys grow up.”