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Aneurysms rare in youth

FARGO - The first sign of a ballooning blood vessel in the brain could be what doctors call a "thunderclap headache" - described as the worst headache of your life.

On the other hand, there often is no sign of what doctors call a subarachnoid aneurysm, or a ruptured blood vessel in the space between the brain and the skull.

"Most of them are asymptomatic; they have no symptoms," Dr. Shawn Christenson, a neurologist at Essentia Health, said Thursday.

"Anybody who gets the worst headache of their life should talk to their doctor or seek emergent care," he said.

Sometimes symptoms of a brain aneurysm also can include visual problems or confusion.

Brain aneurysms suddenly were thrust into public awareness this week with the death Thursday of Eleni Wilson, a 17-year-old West Fargo student who suffered a fatal brain aneurysm.

The risk for a brain hemorrhage increases with age, so an aneurysm in someone so young is rare, Christenson said. They are fatal in about 10 percent of cases.

The most significant risk factor is a family history of brain aneurysms. The risks are highest when multiple family members have suffered the condition, he said.

Other risks include smoking, drug abuse, and head injury.

Neurologists and neurosurgeons use imaging to make the diagnosis. Treatment is surgical, now typically involving a catheter to wrap a protective coil around the bulge in the blood vessel.

An estimated 1 to 5 percent of people have aneurysms without ever knowing it. The key factor, Christenson said, is how large the bulge is.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522