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Strokes, aneurysms, and headaches — oh my!


Headaches are the worst. They come at the worst time, but can be treatable with a pop of Tylenol or Advil. But have you ever asked yourself if it could be something more?

If it is, knowing when to seek medical attention is what those who tuned in to the recent Herald Inside LI webinar were looking for as Dr. Kimon Bekelis shared his expertise on the critical differences between a brain aneurysm and a stroke — and how to treat or prevent either one.

A brain aneurysm is a weak spot in the blood vessel in the brain that can burst. An estimated 30,000 people in the United States suffer a brain aneurysm rupture each year, according to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation.

“Because it’s a fairly rare disease,” Bekelis said, “I think it hasn’t been as mainstream.”

Symptoms of a brain aneurysm can be confused with a headache. If it’s allowed to rupture, it could mean everything from brain damage, to coma, or even death.

Bekelis is a certified neurosurgeon with training in invasive endovascular neurosurgery. He is also the chairman of neuro-interventional services for Catholic Health Services of Long Island, and co-director of the Neuro Intensive Care Unit at Good Samaritan Hospital.

He’s also the director of the Stroke & Brain Aneurysm Center of Long Island, located in Babylon. With all that experience, if Bekelis comes across someone with a stiff neck, blurred or double vision and confusion, he knows he needs to take action right away. The feeling of an aneurysm is like someone hitting you with a hammer.

“It is a very severe event when they rupture,” Bekelis said. “But people do survive.”

Preventing an aneurysm varies from not smoking or using tobacco products, having a healthy diet, and checking your blood pressure and exercising regularly.

But if worrying about aneurysms aren’t enough, Bekelis also warns about strokes. They are caused when blood supply is blocked in part of the brain, or when a blood vessel bursts.

More than 795,000 people in the United States suffer a stroke each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Detecting and identifying a stroke fast is the most important factor in guaranteeing that somebody is not going to have a deficit,” Bekelis said

The American Heart Association created an acronym it believes will help determine if someone is having a stroke. “FAST” is short for face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty, and time to call 911.

The “deficit” of a stroke can vary from impaired speech, limited physical abilities, weakness or limb paralysis. But just like aneurysms, there are ways to prevent strokes, Bekelis said.

Monitor blood pressure and cholesterol. Cut cigarettes. Monitor weight. And, of course, exercise. And there could also be a “magic” pill that might help, too.

“When it comes to aspirin, it used to be a general recommendation that if you’re over the age of 55, they would put you on a baby aspirin,” Bekelis said. “Nowadays, it’s been modified a little because aspirin has been founded to slightly increase the risk of bleeding if you don’t have any risk factors.”

Thinner blood might be good for strokes, but could be bad for other conditions. So, adding a baby aspirin regimen is something Bekelis says should be monitored by a doctor.

It’s challenging to know what the brain is trying to tell us in a headache. But when you know something doesn’t seem right, Bekelis says it will be hard to miss.

“When it comes to a stroke, the symptoms — you can’t miss them,” the neurologist said. “When it comes to a headache, things are a little bit more murky, and headache is a symptom of aneurysm rupture possibility.

“An aneurysm headache is like the worst headache of your life. If it’s one of those, seek immediate medical attention.”