Following up on yesterday’s post, I’ll deal with vertebral artery injuries today. These injuries are uncommon, making them hard to study and develop management recommendations. The literature suggests that about 1% of blunt trauma patients may sustain one of these. Most commonly, the method is motor vehicle crash, and just about any mechanism (hyperflexion, hyperextension, distraction injury, and facet fractures). Fracture of C1-3 has a higher association with the injury.
What is the natural history of this injury? If treated, 67% of occluded vessels recanalize, and 90% of stenotic arteries return to normal caliber. About 15% of untreated injuries will suffer a stroke. As seen in the paper cited yesterday, a good number of these are present on patient arrival and are nonpreventable. But the key issues are identifying an injury in the first place, and treating appropriately. Unfortunately, these are not straightforward.
Although the gold standard for detecting this lesion is digital subtraction angiography, no one does this in acute trauma patients anymore. CT angiography is well established, and the sensitivity rate approaches 99%. The main question is when to get it. To see my hospital’s interpretation of the literature, download our blunt imaging protocol below.
Treatment options include anticoagulation / antiplatelet therapy and endovascular therapy. There is much more experience with the former, but it can’t be used in patients at risk for bleeding (e.g. severe TBI). Unfractionated heparin is good for in-hospital use because it easily reversed. Longer term, anti-platelet agents are preferred. Aspirin is cheaper than clopidagrel, and no study has shown convincing superiority of one over the other. Determining whether endovascular stenting or embolization is necessary requires consultation with a neurosurgeon and interventional radiologist. The decision making is complex and not laid out in the literature. It’s flying by the seat of one’s pants, at best but can be a valuable adjunct.
Followup imaging is suggested to help determine when and if anti-platelet therapy can be discontinued. The best timing for these studies has not been worked out, but since these lesions tend to evolve over 7-10 days, any time after 2 weeks should be appropriate.
Bottom line: This is a tough topic because of the scarcity of good data, which in turn is due to the rarity of the injury. I believe that finding the lesions with good screening criteria offers the best chance of preventing complications such as stroke. Choice of management is best done in collaboration with your neurosurgical and radiologist colleagues.