It was around Thanksgiving and University of Iowa men’s basketball coach Todd Lickliter was complaining of headaches, fatigue and a stuffy nose that he believed were due to seasonal stress.

By the first weekend of December, doctors had discovered a much more serious condition and the 54-year-old was undergoing surgery to repair a tear in the artery that carries blood to the brain.

It’s not all that common a situation, but it’s not exactly rare, either. The University of Iowa medical staff treats about two people per week who have an arterial dissection, estimated Dr. Harold Adams, a neurologist and the director of the Stroke Center at University Hospitals in Iowa City.

It especially happens to younger individuals, he said.

Adams and Dr. Minako Hayakawa were on the team that treated Lickliter for the dissected artery.

While Adams declined to speak about the coach’s case in specifics, he explained that the condition causes headache pain because many nerves exist inside an arterial wall.

A tear occurred on the inside surface of Lickliter’s interior carotid artery. Blood seeped into the arterial wall and threatened to form a clot, an aneurysm or a false aneurysm.

“This can happen spontaneously or following an injury,” Adams said. It occurs more often in men, because of the physical exertion factor, but it also happens to women. Doctors did not often make this diagnosis 30 years ago, but it is better understood now. “Physicians have become much more aware of it,” he added.

 “I encourage everyone to listen to their bodies and heed them,” Lickliter said last week, after he had been released from the hospital.

Condition improves

“I’m getting better,” the coach said during a conference call with reporters on Monday. After going in for surgery, he rested for a week while his young Hawkeyes team played games against in-state rivals the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University. His assistant coaches took over in the interim.

Lickliter plans to return to the bench as head coach for Saturday’s contest with Drake University.

The coach was philosophic after experiencing the life-threatening emergency. “It is times like this when you realize maybe you do have some priorities beyond your career,” he said. “I love coaching basketball, but at times other priorities take precedence. It would be impossible for most of us to do what we do without our health.

“I have a lot to be thankful for.”

Coach did not have a stroke

Lickliter is one of 5,000 to 6,000 Americans per year who have a dissected artery. On the other hand, about 750,000 people suffer a stroke annually, and strokes are a leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Stroke Association. And some dissected artery patients also suffer a stroke, Adams said.

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Warning signs include headaches — especially in individuals who do not usually have them — or from something as seemingly insignificant as a droopy eyelid, the doctor said.

Some people are predisposed to the condition, but it can happen spontaneously. It’s sometimes a car crash complication, and it occurs to athletes in almost every sport, Adams said. People who sneeze violently can tear their artery or it can happen when practicing something as innocuous as yoga.

Scans find the tear

Lickliter’s diagnosis came after two types of scans that looked at his blood vessels. Typical treatments range from drug therapy, involving aspirin or other medications, to surgically implanted stents. A stent stabilizes the arterial wall so it can heal, Adams explained.

Lickliter said he had a stent implanted during his surgery. The coach’s long-term prognosis is good.

“The chance of reoccurrence is very low,” Adams said.

Meanwhile, Lickliter is working his way back into the frenetic college coaching regimen of practice, games, recruiting and travel.

 “We’ll ease into it and go from there,” he said.

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