Making headlines in the sporting world as Americans celebrated Thanksgiving today was news of the tragic death of Australian cricket player Phil Hughes. According to media reports, Hughes was reportedly struck near his left ear, and “as a result of that blow, his vertebral artery was compressed by the ball. That caused the artery to split and for bleeding to go up into the brain,” according to the article from CNN’s site. BBC reports that Hughes never regained consciousness after the injury, and that this incident is generating discussion around safety in the game.
This suggests that Hughes sustained a vertebral artery dissection, or a tear within at least one layer of the artery’s wall. In most people, there are two vertebral arteries – one on each side – traveling through small canals in the spine while carrying blood to the cerebellum, brainstem, and the posterior portions of the brain. The vertebral arteries join after they have entered the skull to form the basilar artery. A prior post on The Stroke Blog in October 2014 described this anatomy with illustration in the context of two cases of carotid artery dissection, which can be accessed here.
Sudden abrupt movements to the neck or direct trauma can result in tearing of the artery. Most vertebral artery dissections involve separation of the innermost layer in the artery, called the endothelium, from the vessel wall, but if severe enough trauma occurs, the splitting can result in rupture of the artery and hemorrhage.
I extend my sincere condolences to Mr. Hughes’s family, friends, team mates, and his fans in Australia who might read this. It is a reminder that life is precious, that tomorrow is not guaranteed to any of us, and that no one is immune from stroke.