Instagram star and Playboy model Katie May is dead after suffering a stroke believed to be linked to a fall she took during a recent photo shoot.
The 34-year-old wrote on Twitter in late January that she thought she had pinched a nerve in her neck after falling, adding, “It really hurts!”
May sought treatment immediately after her fall but suffered a stroke on Monday and was placed on life support until Thursday evening, when she died.
Sources tell TMZ that doctors believe May tore the carotid artery in her neck (one of two large blood vessels that supply blood to the brain) during the fall, resulting in a blood clot that broke off and caused her stroke, a condition known as a carotid artery dissection.
Carotid artery dissection isn’t common in young people, but it can (and does) happen, Michael Jaff, DO, medical director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Vascular Center, tells Yahoo Health. “In young people, it’s a leading cause of stroke,” he says.
“There’s a tremendous lack of recognition,” Heather Gornik, MD, a vascular medicine physician and director of the vascular lab at the Cleveland Clinic, tells Yahoo Health. “I don’t think this is a public health epidemic, but it’s a very important cause of stroke in young people.”
Earlier this week, a teenage Russian hockey player died from a carotid artery dissection after he was hit in the neck with a puck traveling more than 100 miles per hour.
The condition occurs because of some form of trauma — but it doesn’t need to be major trauma. Jaff has seen young patients who suffered a carotid artery dissection from having their head tilted back in a hair salon sink for too long or during a dental procedure. “The most common one we hear about is chiropractic manipulation, but there have been reports of it happening after a bad sneezing or coughing attack, or from a roller coaster ride,” he says. “It’s crazy.”
Some patients may even have some kind of underlying connective tissue abnormality or weak blood vessels, which can also make them more likely to suffer a carotid artery dissection, Peter Gloviczki, MD, a vascular surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., tells Yahoo Health.
Before you panic, know this: Jaff says the condition is rarely fatal in young people, and the risk of developing it, for you or someone you know, is low. “It’s uncommon to have a stroke as a young person, uncommon to have a carotid artery dissection as the cause, and it’s really uncommon to die from it,” he says.
How can you tell a carotid artery dissection from a pinched nerve? Jaff says neck pain and a headache are the two major symptoms, and they won’t go away by applying heat or taking Tylenol. A pinched nerve should also give you pain down your arm, while a carotid artery dissection won’t. However, Gloviczki notes that the initial symptoms can be subtle and can even include something as seemingly minor as dry eye.
If you experience those symptoms, Jaff recommends seeing your doctor “right away” and explaining exactly what you’ve done recently.
But be aware your doctor may not pick up that it’s a carotid artery dissection, as was the case with May. “Unfortunately even health care providers don’t think of this diagnosis,” says Gornik. “It’s woefully underdiagnosed.” (She points out that there’s nothing wrong with specifically asking your doctor if there’s any chance you could have a carotid artery dissection.)
A carotid artery dissection is treatable — usually with aspirin or blood thinners — but it may require surgery. However, if left untreated, it can cause a permanent disability or even death, which is why it’s best to see your doctor if you even suspect you have the condition. Says Jaff: “If you’re concerned about it, get it checked.”