This 40-Year-Old Suffered a Stroke in the Middle of a Yoga Handstand
How did that happen, and is yoga really that dangerous? We asked an expert.
Take one look at all the tutorials on Rebecca Leigh's Instagram, and it's obvious she's an advanced yogi. So when she began filming a new tutorial that would show her 26,000 followers how to do an advanced handstand, she didn't think much of it. In fact, she thought she nailed the pose.
But as she wrapped up the video, her vision started to go blurry, and her limbs began to feel numb.
Leigh, who was 39 at the time, told South West News Service (SWNS) that these symptoms subsided after about five minutes, but then her head started to hurt. She had been previously diagnosed with herniated discs in her neck, and she thought this condition was probably to blame for her blurred sight and numbness.
But two days later, Leigh was horrified to find that her right eye was drooping and her pupils were totally different sizes. She knew something was seriously wrong, so her husband, Kevin, rushed her to the hospital.
“The doctor on staff came into the little room we were waiting in and said in a monotone voice: ‘Well, you my dear, had a stroke,’” Leigh told SWNS. “Kevin and I both let out a little laugh, because we thought he had to be kidding. There was no way that someone my age, in my health, could have had a stroke. But he responded to our laughter in a solemn silence and his face said it all.”
Doctors did a CT angiography scan, which takes images of blood vessels, and found that Leigh had torn her right carotid artery, which reportedly sent a blood clot to her brain and caused the stroke. The trauma from the tear also caused a small brain aneurysm, or weakening of the artery wall.
Leigh was doing a pose called a hollowback handstand when she tore her artery. For all of those non-yogis out there, this is a variation of a handstand that involves arching your neck and back instead of keeping them straight. Carotid artery tears (also called carotid artery dissection) are usually the result of a neck injury that resulted in extreme neck rotation or hyperextension, Mersedeh Bahr Hosseini, MD, a stroke specialist and assistant professor of neurology at UCLA, tells Health. This is what likely happened in Leigh's case.
Other things that can lead to a tear in the carotid artery include violently coughing or sneezing, having a chiropractic adjustment to the neck, or doing any other sudden, drastic neck movement, like dancing, explains Dr. Bahr Hosseini. People who live with health conditions that can weaken the arteries and blood vessels, like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome or fibromuscular dysplasia, are at higher risk. Those who smoke, have high blood pressure, or get regular migraines are also more likely to suffer a carotid artery tear.
So how worried should you be about suffering a stroke or aneurysm when you do yoga? Though it isn't very likely, a serious or potentially lethal injury is not unheard of.
Dr. Bahr Hosseini says she always recommends avoiding any kind of hyperextension of the neck or making extreme neck movements quickly. If you're attempting a pose that requires stretching your neck in a funky way, she says to do it slowly and only hold it for a few seconds. Hyperextension of the neck isn't necessary for most yoga poses, so it shouldn't be hard to avoid.
Leigh's recovery was anything but easy, she told SWNS. For several weeks, she had constant headaches that made even the smallest amount of light unbearable. She couldn’t get out of bed or even eat without help. But just one month after her stroke, she was back on her yoga mat. She simply sat and listened to her breath. Considering what she went through, it was an accomplishment.
The tear in Leigh's artery eventually healed. Yet even though her stroke happened in October 2017, she still feels the effects of the nerve damage every day. She told SWNS that she feels a constant tingling in her arm, has headaches daily, struggles to remember day-to-day conversations, and lives with the fear that she could have another stroke at any time.
However, Leigh didn't let her experience affect her love of yoga. She still practices and regularly posts photos of herself in different poses on Instagram. The difference is that now, she sticks with moves that make her feel safe. "I know I will never be where I was before 100%," she said. "The fact that I can touch my toes is enough to make me smile. I wanted to share my story so that something like this doesn’t happen to any other yogis.”