Anne Marie Hartung's symptoms were so vague at first that no one - even her primary care doctor - thought she was having a stroke.
"It started in early February," the then-50-year-old Chelmsford resident recalls. "I had a stiff neck, but I'd been traveling, so I attributed it to carrying luggage and sleeping in a new bed. Then I got a nagging headache, but with three teen-aged children, a husband and a full-time job, I chalked it up to stress."
I had to hold onto furniture and walls in order to walk. When I went to sit down, I missed the chair."
"I emailed a friend and told her my balance seemed off," she relates. "She suggested it might be an inner ear infection."On the evening of February 16, Anne Marie got up from the couch to go to bed, and her right leg didn't work right. "I thought it was just from sitting on it," she says. But when she woke up the next morning, it felt like the entire house had shifted to the right.
After some initial tests, Anne Marie's primary care physician remained perplexed about the cause of her symptoms and admitted her to Lowell General Hospital for further diagnostic testing. Here, neurologist Jonathan S. Moray, MD, ordered a CT (computed tomography), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and MRA (magnetic resonance angiography), and the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
The MRI and MRA revealed that Anne Marie had suffered a vertebral artery dissection (VAD) ?— a tear in the artery located in the back of the neck that carries blood from the heart to the brain. It's commonly associated with physical trauma, but may also develop spontaneously, as in Anne Marie's case. The annual incidence of VAD is only 1 in 100,000 in the U.S., but it's a major cause of stroke in young people.
"VAD is rare, especially in someone over 40," affirms Dr. Moray. "Plus, Anne Marie had none of the typical risk factors for stroke, such as atherosclerosis (plaque in the arteries), high blood pressure or diabetes. And her symptoms were hard to sort out because they were so common. She was extraordinarily lucky to have come through her experience so well," he adds.
Anne Marie agrees.
"We'll probably never know what triggered this," she says. "I'm healthy now and that's great."
Control risk factors to prevent stroke
While Anne Marie's condition is rare, the more common types of stroke (ischemic and hemorrhagic) are the third leading cause of death in America and a leading cause of adult disability. Yet up to 80% of strokes are preventable!
"One of the most important ways to prevent stroke is to control risk factors," says neurologist Jonathan S. Moray, MD. "There are three things to be sure to check regularly:
- blood pressure,
- glucose intolerance or diabetes,
- and cholesterol.
If your numbers are abnormal, get treatment. It's as simple as that."