Emilia Clarke, most famous for her role as Daenerys Targaryen on HBO’s Game of Thrones, recently revealed in an essay for The New Yorker that she experienced two life-threatening brain aneurysms after she finished filming the first season of the show.
Clarke, 32, recalls her early symptoms in the essay: “On the morning of February 11, 2011, I was getting dressed in the locker room of a gym in Crouch End, North London, when I started to feel a bad headache coming on.”
My trainer had me get into the plank position, and I immediately felt as though an elastic band were squeezing my brain. I tried to ignore the pain and push through it, but I just couldn’t. I told my trainer I had to take a break. Somehow, almost crawling, I made it to the locker room. I reached the toilet, sank to my knees, and proceeded to be violently, voluminously ill. Meanwhile, the pain-shooting, stabbing, constricting pain-was getting worse. At some level, I knew what was happening: my brain was damaged.
Clarke doesn’t remember everything, since the events of that day became “noisy and blurry,” but she does recall the sound of a siren, throwing up bile, and someone saying her pulse was weak. Once she was at the hospital, she was sent for an MRI, where she received a swift diagnosis: a subarachnoid hemorrhage (aka, a life-threatening stroke).
“For the next three hours, surgeons went about repairing my brain. This would not be my last surgery, and it would not be the worst. I was twenty-four years old,” Clarke wrote. She admitted the pain was unbearable after waking up, and she had no idea where she was-and yet, she went back to work to film season two about month later.
But Clarke still had a growth on the other side of her brain, which doubled in size by the time she finished filming season 3 of Game of Thrones. She was scheduled for a second emergency surgery, which was much more invasive (the doctors had to go through her skull).
While she says the recovery was much worse than her first surgery and she was “convinced she wasn’t going to live,” Clarke is now back “at 100 percent.” Finally fully healed, she wants others to be aware of her story.
So what exactly is a brain aneurysm-and why are they so often deadly? Here are the symptoms you should never ignore.
What is a brain aneurysm, exactly?
A brain aneurysm is a ballooning blood vessel in the brain, and if it bursts, it can cause bleeding, also known as a hemorrhagic stroke. Most brain aneurysms occur between the brain and the tissues covering it-also known as a subarachnoid hemorrhage, which is what Clarke was first diagnosed with.
Think of it this way: An aneurysm is a weakness in the wall of one of your brain’s blood vessels, Howard Riina, MD, a neurosurgeon with New York University's Langone Medical Center previously told Prevention. That weakness allows the blood vessel to push outward and form a bulge, much like an over-inflated balloon. Once it ruptures, the pressure and lack of blood can lead to unconsciousness and death.
“Until a rupture or leak occurs, many people are walking around with an aneurysm and don’t know it,” Dr. Riina explained. “Some data we have suggest 6 to 9 percent of the population have one.”
It’s unclear why Clarke suffered her first aneurysm at 24. While the specific causes of a brain aneurysm aren’t known, some people are at higher risk than others, especially if they are older, smoke, have high blood pressure, or consume drugs and alcohol. If you have inherited connective tissue disorders, polycystic kidney disease, or a family history of brain aneurysms, you’re also at an elevated risk.
What are they symptoms of a brain aneurysm?
A severe headache, which Clarke experienced during her workout with her trainer, is often the first sign of a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Often people describe it as the worst headache they’ve ever had, similar to being struck by a bolt of lightening. Some of the other most common symptoms of a brain aneurysm include the following:
- Stiff neck
- Sensitivity to light
- Blurred vision
- Drooping eyelid
- Brief loss of consciousness
How is a brain aneurysm treated?
There are two different treatment options for a brain aneurysm: surgical clipping and endovascular coiling. These two procedures have risk of bleeding in the brain and loss of blood flow to the brain.
According to the Mayo Clinic, surgical clipping is a procedure in which a neurosurgeon removes a section of your skull to locate the blood vessel that’s causing the aneurysm and then inserts a tiny metal clip on the neck of the aneurysm to stop it from leaking or bursting.
Endovascular coiling is a less invasive surgery and involves placing a catheter into an artery, usually your groin, that leads to the aneurysm. Then, the neurosurgeon pushes a soft platinum wire through the catheter leading to the aneurysm. The wire coils up in the aneurysm to seal the aneurysm from the artery. Some other treatment options for ruptured brain aneurysms include pain relievers, calcium channel blockers, and anti-seizure medications.
Toward the end of her essay, Clarke emphasizes that she is doing better than ever. “In the years since my second surgery I have healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes. I am now at a hundred percent," she wrote. "Beyond my work as an actor, I’ve decided to throw myself into a charity I’ve helped develop in conjunction with partners in the U.K. and the U.S. It is called SameYou, and it aims to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke. I feel endless gratitude.”
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