After nearly collapsing onstage last week, country star Drake White revealed in PEOPLE’s latest issue that he was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in January and is currently undergoing medical treatment for the condition.
An AVM is an abnormal tangle of arteries and veins, often found in the brain, that disrupts normal blood flow. In White’s case, the AVM was the size of a “large ice cream cone” on the back right side of his brain, creating numbness and sensory issues on the left side of his body.
“It becomes like a big ball of spaghetti and can basically end up stealing blood from the brain,” explained Nashville-based neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Mericle, who has treated White since the country singer’s diagnosis in January.
Luckily, White’s AVM was caught just as it began making trouble for the musician — though he’s likely had it for years, probably since birth.
“As one gets older, these vessels often get weaker and due to the intense pressure, can lead to a rupture or bleeding or a stroke,” Dr. Mericle told PEOPLE.
It was this fear of a stroke that White, who has made a career for himself courtesy of songs such “Livin’ the Dream” and “Makin’ Me Look Good Again,” found himself faced with over the winter.
“That morning, I had worked out and went to a lunch meeting, and that’s when the headache started,” White, 35, recalled in an interview with PEOPLE back in July. “By 2 p.m. I was in bed seeing spots in my left eye, and that’s when my left side started going numb. I tried to sleep it off but woke up with the same intense headache.”
But rest assured, not every headache is caused by an AVM.
“Sometimes, a headache is just a headache,” explained Dr. Mericle, noting that people with AVMs can also experience seizures or signs of epilepsy prior to diagnosis. “But if someone is experiencing something new and different when it comes to these headaches and they have never had it checked, it might be a good idea to get it checked. Because sometimes, a headache can mean a tumor or an aneurysm or an AVM, like in Drake’s case.”
Thus far, White has endured four embolization procedures (one of which took place days before his stumbling incident in Virginia) and Dr. Mericle is confident that they have “knocked out 75% of the mass.”
“Drake’s AVM was pretty big,” said Dr. Mericle. “Most AVMs require about three surgeries to get all of it, but we had to do more for him. Even when it’s gone, we will need to follow it for a couple of years to ensure we got it all.”
And while White’s AVM has been treated via embolization procedures thus far, there are other options when it comes to treating an AVM.
“Another way is to use stereotactic radiosurgery in which we focus the radiation to the brain AVM,” explained Dr. Mericle. “This can be only used if the AVM is small, and Drake’s AVM was anything but small when it was discovered. The third option is surgery in which we would open the skull and surgically remove the AVM from the brain.”
Through it all, White has maintained an easy-going nature about his health situation, joking with PEOPLE that he hopes to be better at math or play the guitar better once the AVM is gone.
“It’s certainly possible, but no one has proven that,” said Dr. Mericle with a laugh. “There is an increased blood flow to the brain once the AVM is treated, but we haven’t proven anything in stone. But yes, I totally understand why Drake would think along those lines.”
For more on Drake White and arteriovenous malformations, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
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