J. M. Wardlaw, P. M. White



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The incidence of subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH) is 6-8 per 100 000 person years, peaking in the sixth decade. SAH, mostly due to rupture of an intracranial aneurysm, accounts for a quarter of cerebrovascular deaths. Aneurysms increase in frequency with age beyond the third decade, are 1.6 times more common in women and are associated with a number of genetic conditions. Prospective autopsy and angiographic studies indicate that between 3.6 and 6% of the population harbour an intracranial aneurysm. Studies have found an increased rate of SAH in first degree relatives of SAH patients (relative risk 3.7-6.6). In affected families, the most frequent relationship between sufferers is sibling to sibling. The rupture rate: of asymptomatic aneurysms was thought to be 1-2% per annum, but the recent International Study of Unruptured Intracranial Aneurysms found that the rupture rate of small aneurysms was only 0.05% per annum in patients with no prior SAH, and 0.5% per annum for large (>10 mm diameter) aneurysms and for all aneurysms in patients with previous SAH. Non-invasive tests such as magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), computed tomographic angiography (CTA) and transcranial Doppler (TCD) have been advocated as alternatives to intra-arterial digital subtraction angiography to screen for aneurysms. Although all are promising techniques, the quality of data testing their accuracy is limited. Overall reported sensitivity for CTA and MRA (TCD is poorer) was 76-98% and specificity was 85-100%,but many subjects had an aneurysm or recent SAH, which could overestimate accuracy. CTA and MRA are much poorer methods for the detection of aneurysms <5 mm diameter, which account for up to one-third of unruptured aneurysms. Elective surgical clipping of asymptomatic aneurysms has a morbidity of 10.9% and mortality of 3.8%. Treatment of aneurysms by Guglielmi coils, for which there is less long-term follow-up available, has a 4% morbidity and 1% mortality, but only achieves complete aneurysm occlusion in 52-78% of cases. There has been interest in screening for aneurysms, but the indication for, and cost effectiveness of screening are unclear because aneurysm prevalence varies, rupture rate is low, non-invasive imaging tests are not yet accurate enough to exclude small aneurysms and the morbidity and mortality for elective surgical treatment of unruptured aneurysms is high. There may be a limited role for investigation of high risk subgroups. Ideally, screening in such subgroups should be tested in a randomized trial. The avoidance of risk factors for aneurysms such as smoking, hypertension and hypercholesterolaemia should be part of the management of at-risk subjects.