Vertebrobasilar circulatory disorders
Vertebrobasilar circulatory disorders are conditions in which blood supply to the back of the brain is disrupted.
Vertebrobasilar insufficiency; Posterior circulation ischemia
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
The vertebrobasilar system is also called the back (posterior) circulation of the brain. This part of the brain contains structures that are crucial for keeping a person alive. For instance, the brainstem controls breathing and swallowing, among other things. Parts of the brain help with vision (occipital lobes) and movement coordination (cerebellum) are also located in the back of the brain.
Three main blood vessels provide blood flow to the back of the brain:
- One basilar artery
- Two vertebral arteries
Vertebrobasilar vascular disorders may also be caused by a tear (dissection) in an artery wall. Dissection can be caused by clogged arteries or injuries such as a car accident. However, most of the time, no apparent cause of dissection can be identified.
Other less common causes of vertebrobasilar vascular disorders include connective tissue diseases and vasculitis.
Symptoms of strokes due to vertebrobasilar disorders may include:
- Bladder or bowel control problems
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty walking (unsteady gait)
- Double vision or vision loss
- Hearing loss
- Muscle weakness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Neck ache
- Numbness or tingling most often on the face or scalp
- Pain in one or more parts of the body, which gets worse with touch and cold temperatures
- Poor coordination
- Sleepiness or even apparent sleep from which the person cannot be awakened
- Slurred speech
- Sudden, uncoordinated movements
- Sweating on the face, arms, or legs
- Vertigo (sensation of things spinning around)
Signs and tests
Tests depend on the possible underlying cause, but may include:
- CT or MRI of the brain
- Computed tomography angiography (CTA), magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), or ultrasound to look at blood vessels in the brain
- Blood tests, including blood clotting studies
- Electrocardiogram (ECG) and Holter monitor
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) -- rarely needed
- X-rays of the arteries (angiogram)
Sudden onset of vertebrobasilar symptoms is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. For treatment information, see:
Treatment options may include:
- Diet changes and medication to lower cholesterol and control blood pressure
- Blood-thinning medications to lower your risk of stroke, such as aspirin, warfarin (Coumadin) or clopidogrel (Plavix)
There is no good surgical treatment for patients who have narrowing of the vertebrobasilar arteries.
The outlook depends in part on the underlying cause. Strokes are potentially life threatening, and require urgent medical care. Age and the person's overall health are taken into consideration when determining one's outlook for recovery. A substantial recovery can be expected in younger patients who have no significant medical problems.
Recovery also depends on the area of the brain that has been affected. The outlook is very poor when the patient is in a coma or cannot move both arms and legs.
Complications of vertebrobasilar circulatory disorders are stroke and its complications. The complications of stroke include:
- Respiratory (breathing) failure (which may require use of a machine to help the patient breathe)
- Lung problems (especially lung infections)
- Heart attack
- Dehydration and swallowing problems (sometimes leading to the placement of tubes in the stomach for artificial feeding)
- Problems with movement or sensation, including paralysis and numbness
- Formation of clots in the legs
Patients may have vision loss in one eye.
Complications caused by medications or surgery may also occur.
Calling your health care provider
Call 911 or your local emergency number, or get to the emergency room if you have any symptoms that may suggest a vertebrobasilar circulatory disorder.
You can reduce your risk of stroke due to atherosclerosis by:
- Quitting smoking
- Getting regular exercise
- Controling blood pressure and blood sugar
- Following a healthy diet
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Adams RJ, Albers G, Alberts MJ, Benavente O, Furie K, Goldstein LB, et al. Update to the AHA/ASA recommendations for the prevention of stroke in patients with stroke and transient ischemic attack. Stroke. 2008 May;39(5):1647-52. Epub 2008 Mar 5.
Biller J, Love BB, Schneck MJ. Vascular Diseases of the Nervous System. In: Bradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, eds. Neurology in Clinical Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Butterworth-Heinemann; 2008:chap 55.
Reviewed By: Daniel Kantor, MD, Medical Director of Neurologique, Ponte Vedra, FL and President of the Florida Society of Neurology (FSN). Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.