At around 5:00am on the morning of December 6th, I woke up with a massive headache with an epicenter in the middle, right interior of my head. I’ve had headaches before, but they were never migraines nor anything near this painful. In the past, I have suffered a few broken bones and have had injuries and illnesses, but this headache was much more intense—most definitely a 10 on a 1-to-10 pain scale.

Initially, I thought this could be a migraine caused by the current level of stress in my life. It was finals week and, that, along with other ongoing problems I deal with day-to-day seemed to be culminating in my first migraine.

Tipping point

I got up to go to the bathroom and take some ibuprofen. When I walked, I couldn’t maintain a straight line, veering into the wall. I didn’t lose my balance, but I felt it odd that my mind wanted to walk straight, but my body couldn’t. I started to feel nauseous, but I took the ibuprofen and was able to keep it down.

I hobbled back to the bed, again in a right-diagonal route. My wife noticed the difficulty I was having and asked if I was alright. She offered to take me to see a doctor. At the time, I thought I would be fine, but I was really hurting. I still thought it was a migraine and said she should go on in to work at the usual time.

The pain persisted no matter how I shifted positions while laying in bed. I started worrying about how I didn’t walk straight earlier, and silently gave myself a mini neurological test to see if I could detect any loss of strength or movement with any of my extremities. I passed my own exam but was still concerned, so I told my wife about it. She agreed insisted I should go to the hospital, I reluctantly agreed, and she drove me there.

Tests, tests, tests

The hospital’s emergency department wasn’t too busy, but I had to wait about an hour to receive some pain medication and an initial assessment by the staff. Apparently, there were a couple of other more pressing emergencies that the physicians and nurses had to deal with. The physicians ordered a CT scan to rule out a tumor or brain hemorrhage. The scan came back negative, so they wanted to perform a lumbar puncture to verify with even more accuracy that there was no bleeding within the brain, as CT scans are not 100% accurate. The spinal fluid tests came back negative for both blood and signs of infection.

With the medicines they gave me, my initial massive headache had subsided, so they released me after about seven hours at the hospital. I was instructed to see my family doctor that week and told that he would likely order an MRI. I did that, and he agreed that an MRI would be good to do. I was fortunate to have the MRI performed the same day (a Friday), and my results would be available to my doctor by Monday.

When Monday arrived, my doctor called and told me that they found a problem in my cerebellum, and that he wanted to refer me to a neurologist. He didn’t know if it was a stroke or some other issue, but further testing would likely determine what I was dealing with. I got an appointment with a neurologist who had a cancellation for the next day, and looked forward to getting to the bottom of this issue.

My neurologist talked to me at length about the MRI report, and said that there was a possibility that I had a stroke or was suffering from some other vascular problem located in my head. He ordered an MRA, which is an MR scan of the blood vessels, and he wanted to have that done as soon as possible at one of the facilities he routinely uses. Again, I was fortunate to get my appointment during the same week, although I was going into my second week after the trip to the hospital.

Diagnosis: stroke.

With the MRA results in, my doctor phoned me with my diagnosis and further instructions. I was told that I have a right vertebral artery dissection with significant occlusion (but not total) of the lumen (blood vessel interior opening) which caused decreased blood flow to my cerebellum and subsequent infarct (stroke).

Basically, the inner wall of my artery has a tear in it which separated from the outer wall. This separation allowed blood to pool in the new space (false lumen) between the vessel walls, creating a bulge. This bulge restricts the artery’s internal opening and also raises the possibility for clots to break apart and travel upstream and block blood flow to my brain (thrombosis) which causes a stroke. That’s the most likely explanation of what happened on December 6th (VAD resulting in ischemic insult/stroke), and I’m not totally out of the woods yet.

I’ll post some snazzy pictures from the MRI/MRA of my brain and arteries later. Those are too weird looking not to share. :)

Stroke recovery and prognosis

My recovery is going well, so far. I’ve been restricted from strenuous activity, as the doctors don’t want to have any trauma prevent the dissection from healing properly. I’m also on an anticoagulant (commonly called “blood thinner”), which means I need to be careful shaving, avoid falls and bruising, and cannot take certain medications. Hopefully, in three to six months, the MRI/MRA scans will show no signs of the dissection, I can discontinue the medicines, and then return to full, vigorous activity.

The possibility of recurrence is actually quite low, as long as I remain “dissection-free,” according to my doctors and all the literature that I’ve read so far. And, fortunately, all of my neurological exams (real ones, not self-administered) show no signs of lingering problems. The good news is that the neurologist said both my age and overall excellent health played a vital role in regard to my brain’s plasticity. This allowed neighboring neurons to quickly take over the functions of the damaged ones after the stroke.

My quick recovery exemplifies the very real connection between physical and mental fitness. Yes, I was lucky. But, I believe that had I been completely out of shape, sedentary, and unhealthy to begin with, I might not be able to write this post at all. And, for those interested in exploring the connection between exercise and the brain, I highly recommend reading Spark by John Ratey, M.D. It provides a foundation of knowledge about how closely related exercise is to brain function and performance, and it’s quite an accessible read, too.

2012 should be an interesting year, and I look forward to (re)connecting with friends and family, recovering fully to continue my fitness and athletic goals, and sharing good, happy news along the way.