A university student came within a day of losing her eyesight after an optician discovered her severe headaches were due to an intense build-up of pressure inside her head.
When Lauren Jenkins, 20, went to A&E in agony, feeling like her head was “in a vice,” only to twice be sent home with painkillers after a CT scan was clear, she turned to her optician for help – thinking she might have a problem with her contact lenses.
But on the late May Bank Holiday Monday, the optician spotted a swollen optic nerve, resulting in a diagnosis of intracranial hypertension, or a build-up of pressure around the brain, requiring emergency surgery to prevent her from losing her sight.
Lauren, who is studying psychology at the University of Birmingham and lives in the city with her family, said: “Being told by doctors I could lose my sight unless they operated the next day was very scary.
“It’s not something you ever expect to happen to you.
“My message is that if you have any changes in your vision, make an appointment for an eye test, as opticians spot so much more than just whether you need glasses.”
Lauren, who has been dating Network Rail apprentice Jack Horbury, 20, for three years, first started having headaches and blurry vision in May 2021.
When they intensified, she rang the NHS non-emergency line 111 for help.
She said: “It was nothing worrying at first, but it started to progress.”
She added: “I ended up moving home early from where I lived in my student house, as it was getting worse.
“I was having constant headaches and spots in my vision and my neck was completely stiff.
“It felt like my head was in a vice and was constantly being crushed – it was really debilitating.”
Advised to go to A&E, Lauren was told she was having migraines and was prescribed ibuprofen for pain relief.
But when the pain intensified, she went to a walk-in centre, where she was advised she could have a strained neck muscle and prescribed codeine, a stronger analgesic, which made her sick.
She said: “By this point, my headaches were non-stop.”
She continued: “I had loads of spots in my vision, I wasn’t able to see properly, and I had a really stiff neck. I pretty much couldn’t move my neck and I wasn’t able to drive.”
Calling 111 again on the May Bank Holiday Monday, she was once more referred to A&E, where she was given a CT scan which came back clear and prescribed yet more painkillers.
The next day, still in agony, she decided to book an eye test at Specsavers in nearby Sutton Coldfield, just in case her problems were linked to her contact lens prescription.
She was seen by one of the store’s optometrists, Lakhdeep Kaur, who used an optical coherence tomography (OCT) machine, which provides a detailed structural scan of the eye.
Realising that Lauren had swollen optic nerves, she was referred urgently to the Birmingham and Midland Eye Centre (BMEC).
Relieved to be getting answers, Lauren was not too concerned about her prognosis at first.
“I was a bit worried, but I didn’t think it would really turn into anything,” she said.
“I’d been to that hospital before for an eye infection, so I wasn’t really worried at that point.
“I thought, ‘At least they’ve realised there’s something wrong!’”
After waiting in A&E, doctors re-examined her eyes and diagnosed her with idiopathic intracranial hypertension, meaning the cause was unclear, before admitting her to a ward overnight for another CT scan.
“I had a lumbar puncture while I was there to try and drain the fluid and loads of different eye tests,” she said.
To her shock, her case was deemed “too serious” for the hospital she was in, so she was transferred to the city’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
Admitted to a neurology ward, Lauren had further tests and was told her vision changes were due to papilloedema – swelling of the optic disc caused by intracranial hypertension – resulting in vision changes.
Her case was so severe that doctors warned her if they did not operate the very next day to relieve the pressure causing the swollen disc, she could lose her sight.
Lauren said: “They wanted to operate and put a shunt in the next day. They said afterwards that if they hadn’t, I would have lost my sight.”
She added: “It was very scary, as it’s not something you ever expect at all. I couldn’t believe it.”
The next day, she had a three-hour operation to fit a pressure monitor in her head and a shunt to drain the fluid from her brain to her stomach.
“It was very daunting,” Lauren admitted.
She continued: “Last time I had very minor surgery I was really little, so I’d never experienced anything like this.
“It was very nerve-wracking, especially as I was on my own in the hospital as well because of Covid.”
Fitted internally, the magnetic pressure monitor can be adjusted by doctors to ensure the pressure inside Lauren’s head remains at the correct level.
“The tube runs inside all the way down my neck into my stomach,” she said.
“My pressure had built up to 54 when the normal range is 10 to 20. The shunt brings it down to normal levels.”
Lauren’s recovery from the operation was tough and she still experiences side effects from her condition.
She said: “The recovery has been longer than expected and I ended up quitting my job in retail, which I did alongside my studies, as the effects were so bad.
“It can be painful every now and then, as my body is getting used to something foreign inside it, but the operation was definitely worth it.
“I do still have headaches, but they’re not as bad as they were and there was some permanent damage to my eyes – but I’m lucky it was spotted in time.”
Emotionally, Lauren is also trying to come to terms with her ordeal.
She said: “It was definitely very traumatic, and it was a lot to process. I just take it day by day and have a great support system with my friends and my boyfriend.
“Your sight is something really precious and it definitely made me more aware of that.”
She continued: “I’m very grateful to all the doctors and nurses who took care of me in the hospital – they were great.
“This came so close to being life-changing for me, but luckily it was caught in time – all thanks to Specsavers.”
Now back at University, which has encouraged her to get out and about, she cannot drive yet as DVLA rules mean she has to desist for six months after the operation.
She said: “I can’t wait to drive again, but, with shunts, under the DVLA rules you can’t drive for six months and that’s left me feeling a bit stuck.
“But I’m hoping to be able to go on holiday next year – maybe to the Greek island, Santorini, for my 21st birthday next May, as I’ve always wanted to go.
“I want to spend my summer doing what I want, rather than being struck down by headaches and pain.”
And Lauren cannot stress strongly enough the need to have regular eye tests and to see an optician if you are suffering with vision issues or persistent headaches.
“I think we tend to underestimate how much opticians can spot and what they can see,” she said.
“It’s not just whether you need glasses – they can help a lot with your eye health.”
She added: “If you have any changes in your eyesight, they are the best people to go to. I’ll certainly be encouraging my friends and family to take their eye health more seriously now.”
Optician Lakhdeep Kaur is delighted that she is now so much better.
She said: “I’m so pleased that Lauren is on the road to recovery.”
She continued: “It’s rare to see cases of IIH, but what stories like Lauren’s do demonstrate is the importance of not neglecting any issues with their health.
“I encourage people to think of a sight test as part of their health MOT check every couple of years, and of course make an appointment to see your optometrist sooner if you are experiencing any issues with vision.”
* For more information or to book an appointment, call Specsavers on 0121 354 4143 or visit https://www.specsavers.co.uk/stores/