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Published on June 09, 2014

More Than A Migraine: When a Headache Isn't a Headache

COLUMBIA, Mo. - As the manager of a group home in Sedalia, Missouri, and a mother of six, Heather Tomlonson is used to caring for people. But last month, her role as caregiver abruptly changed as the result of a ruptured brain aneurysm.

On the morning of May 6, Tomlonson was working on paperwork when she began to experience a severe headache. With sudden and severe pain above her right eye, she knew this headache was different than any she had experienced before.

"I've had bad headaches and migraines before, but I immediately knew this was something different," Tomlonson said. "Something was definitely wrong with me."

Her husband took her to Bothwell Regional Health Center in Sedalia, and she was quickly referred to University Hospital in Columbia for specialty care. She was diagnosed with subarachnoid hemorrhaging, or bleeding on the brain, as a result of a ruptured aneurysm. 

An aneurysm is a bulging, weak area in the wall of an artery that supplies blood to the brain. In severe cases such as Tomlonson's, the enlarged artery can rupture, causing bleeding on the brain. Depending on the severity of the hemorrhage, individuals can experience a stroke, brain damage or even death.

N. Scott Litofsky, M.D., an MU neurosurgeon and chief of the Division of Neurological Surgery at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, performed a surgical clipping procedure to close off the ruptured aneurysm. Today, Tomlonson is back at work and has begun to resume management of the group home.

"It's really amazing how quickly I've recovered," Tomlonson said. "I'm not 100 percent quite yet, but I'm getting better every day. I didn't think I would be feeling this well this quickly."

Like Tomlonson, approximately 30,000 people in the United States experience ruptured aneurysms each year. As part of National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month in June, experts at University of Missouri Health Care are raising awareness of the symptoms of intracranial aneurysm and hemorrhaging.

"A brain aneurysm can be a serious condition that requires close attention," Litofsky said. "Because of Heather's prompt action in seeking medical treatment, we were able to take care of the aneurysm before it caused any additional medical complications."

Most aneurysms do not cause symptoms and are usually discovered during unrelated testing for another condition. However, if the ballooned artery quickly grows and leaks or eventually ruptures, a person can experience severe and sudden headaches, blurred vision, dizziness, changes in speech, neck pain, nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light and even seizure.

Tomlonson is the only member of her family to experience a ruptured brain aneurysm, though family history is a risk factor for the condition. Tobacco use also is a risk factor, and Tomlonson has decided to stop smoking. Other risk factors for the development of an aneurysm include:

  • Gender: Women are more likely than men to develop a brain aneurysm or to experience subarachnoid hemorrhaging.
    Race: African-Americans are more likely than other ethnic groups to experience subarachnoid hemorrhaging.
  • High blood pressure: People with a history of high blood pressure are more likely to experience subarachnoid hemorrhaging.

"I don't know if I would be here today if I hadn't been treated at University Hospital," Tomlonson said. "It was very scary thinking that I could die, but the entire neurology team was just wonderful and so reassuring. I can't stress enough how important it is to recognize and take action when you think something is wrong with your body."