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What is a brain aneurysm and can it be treated? What you need to know about the condition that nearly killed Emilia Clarke

The Independent logo The Independent 22/03/2019 Sarah Young
Emilia Clarke posing for the camera © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

Game of Thrones actor Emilia Clarke has revealed that she suffered two brain aneurysms that both required life-saving surgery.

In a powerful essay for The New Yorker, the 32-year-old explained that her health problems began in February 2011, soon after she had finished filming for Game of Thrones’ first season.

After experiencing a painful headache during a workout that became so intense she had to “almost crawl” back to the locker room, Clarke was taken to hospital and diagnosed with a subarachnoid haemorrhage.

The actor underwent two invasive surgeries, one in 2011 that led her to develop a condition called aphasia - when a person has difficulty with their language or speech – and another in 2013, after a brain scan revealed that her second aneurysm had doubled in size.

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Thankfully, Clarke says that her health is now at “a hundred per cent” but her essay has opened up questions about the life-threatening condition.

The NHS states that it is difficult to estimate how many people are affected by brain aneurysms but that experts believe it could be as high as one in 20 people.

That being said, it reveals that the number of aneurysms that actually rupture is far smaller.

Only around 1 in 12,500 people have a ruptured brain aneurysm in England each year.

Here, we find out exactly what an aneurysm is, what symptoms you should look our for and how it can be treated.

What is a brain aneurysm?

CT angiography of the brain or CTA brain comparison Sagittal view , 2D and 3D Rendering image . medical technology concept. © Getty CT angiography of the brain or CTA brain comparison Sagittal view , 2D and 3D Rendering image . medical technology concept. According to the NHS, an aneurysm is a “bulge in a blood vessel caused by a weakness in the blood vessel wall.”

As blood passes through the weakened blood vessel, pressure causes a small area to “bulge outwards like a balloon”.

Aneurysms can develop in any blood vessel in the body, but the two most common places are the abdominal aorta – the artery that transports blood away from the heart to the rest of the body – and the brain.

The NHS states that the medical term for an aneurysm that develops inside the brain is an “intracranial” or “cerebral” aneurysm.

If a brain aneurysm bursts, it can lead to an extremely serious condition known as subarachnoid haemorrhage – which Clarke experienced.

This is where bleeding caused by the ruptured aneurysm can cause extensive brain damage and symptoms. You can read more about this below.

What are the symptoms of a brain aneurysm?

senior woman with neck pain © Getty senior woman with neck pain The NHS states that many people who are affected by brain aneurysms do not experience symptoms, however they can include:

  • a sudden agonising headache – it's been described as a “thunderclap headache”, similar to a sudden hit on the head, resulting in a blinding pain unlike anything experienced before
  • stiff neck
  • sickness and vomiting
  • pain on looking at light

Can it be life-threatening?

If the brain aneurysm ruptures, yes. According to the NHS, around three in five people who have a subarachnoid haemorrhage die within two weeks, while half of those who survive are left with severe brain damage and disability.

Because of this, if you suspect someone has had a brain haemorrhage, which could be caused by a ruptured aneurysm, call 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance.

How is a brain aneurysm treated?

© Getty If a brain aneurysm is detected before it ruptures, treatment could be recommended to prevent it rupturing in future, according to the NHS.

If treatment is recommended, this usually involves either filling the aneurysm with small metal coils or an open operation to seal it shut with a tiny metal clip.

If your risk of a rupture is low however, you may just be given regular check-ups to monitor your aneurysm.

The NHS adds that some people are also given medication to reduce their blood pressure and advice about ways to reduce the chances of a rupture, including stopping smoking.

The same techniques used to prevent ruptures are also used to treat brain aneurysms that have already ruptured.

What causes a brain aneurysm to develop?

The NHS states that exactly what causes the wall of affected blood vessels to weaken is unclear, however some risk factors have been identified, including smoking, high blood pressure and a family history of brain aneurysms.

It adds that while brain aneurysms can develop in anyone at any age, they are more common in people over the age of 40.

Women also tend to be affected more commonly than men.

What is a subarachnoid haemorrhage?

© Getty A subarachnoid haemorrhage is an uncommon type of stroke caused by bleeding on the surface of the brain, the NHS states.

Whlie there aren't typically any warning signs, a subarachnoid haemorrhage can happens during extreme physical effort or straining, such as coughing, going to the toilet, lifting something heavy or having sex.

The main symptoms of a subarachnoid haemorrhage include:

  • a sudden severe headache unlike anything you’ve experienced before
  • a stiff neck
  • feeling and being sick
  • sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • blurred or double vision
  • stroke-like symptoms – such as slurred speech and weakness on one side of the body
  • loss of consciousness or convulsions (uncontrollable shaking)

A subarachnoid haemorrhage is a medical emergency. Dial 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance if you or someone in your care has these symptoms.

For more information and advice on life after brain injury you can contact Headway - a UK-wide charity that provides vital support and information services – on 0808 800 2244 or send an email to helpline@headway.org.uk.

Emilia Clarke has also launched a new charity, SameYou, aimed at supporting young people with brain injuries. You can find more information here.

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