No one likes a headache, and each kind of headache is bad in its own way, but you would probably be especially disturbed if your headache was caused by a parasitic worm crawling around your brain for several years. Such was the fate of a British man who recently found out that a one centimeter tapeworm (more precisely, Spirometra erinaceieuropaei) has been living in his brain for the past four years.
The man with the tapeworm infection had been experiencing problems and seeking medical help for years, according to The Guardian, who unearthed this strange, disturbing tale and first reported on it. In addition to the headaches, the man experienced memory flashbacks and strange smells, and he also suffered from seizures. The man underwent an MRI, which showed a grouping of rings on the right side of his brain. He was tested for a battery of different ailments, ranging from tuberculosis to HIV, but tested negative to all of them. Further attempts to identify the man’s problem led to additional brain scans, which showed the pattern of “rings” moving across his brain. The worm was finally discovered after the man underwent a biopsy at a hospital in Cambridge. After the worm was removed, the surgeons were unsure exactly what they found, but geneticists were able to identify the parasite as Spirometra erinaceieuropaei, a rare species of tapeworm.
The parasite can be picked up from infected meat or water, but how exactly the man become infected is unknown. He is believed to have picked up the parasite while visiting China, where the worm in generally found in amphibians and crustaceans, or in cats and dogs later in its life cycle. Human infections are extremely rare – there have only been 300 cases reported since 1953, and only two of these have been in Europe, where this recent case was of course diagnosed. The infections are slightly more common in China, but they are still exceedingly uncommon. Since 1882, there have been 1,000 cases in China.
Of all the possible causes for a headache, a tapeworm infection in the brain has got to be among the worst. If you ever have a headache and you are prone to let your mind wander about medical problems, it is probably best to forget you ever read this article. Once again, though, the infections are extremely rare, and moreover the British man’s case has helped doctors learn new information about the parasite, potentially helping with any cases that emerge in the future. So, if you have a headache, it almost certainly isn’t caused by a tapeworm, and even if it is, doctors should now be better able to identify the problem and treat it.