Tag Archives: vertebral artery

Best Of EAST 2020 #1: Treatment Of Blunt Carotid & Vertebral Injuries

The 33rd Annual Assembly of the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma starts in just two weeks! As usual, I will select several interesting abstracts from the bunch to review. I’ll go over the findings of the research, critique it, and then provide a series of questions for the presenter to consider. These questions are ones that members of the audience may very well ask (hint, hint).

And FYI, I always send a heads-up to the presenters with a link to the post so they can study up beforehand!

So let’s get started with the first abstract that will be kicking off the meeting on January 15. Blunt cerebral / vertebral artery injury (BCVI) is one of those insidious injuries that trauma professionals don’t always think about. But they do occur in about 1% of major trauma patients. It’s one of those injuries that can’t be ignored because very serious complications may occur if it is not treated appropriately (think stroke).

Unless there are extenuating circumstances like bleeding or pseudoaneurysm, treatment is usually pharmaceutical. There are two camps: antiplatelet drugs vs anticoagulant drugs. But there is very little data to determine which one is better.

This abstract is a retrospective review from the National Readmission Database (NRD). This resource is maintained by the US government and provides information on patient readmissions nationally across all payors as well as the uninsured. They included all patients > 18 years old with a BCVI and minor injuries in other body regions. Patients who suffered a stroke complication during their initial hospital stay were excluded.

Patients were divided into two groups: those taking an antiplatelet agent and those prescribed an anticoagulant. Outcomes of interest were readmission with CVA and death, within six months.

Here are the factoids:

  • 725 patients with BCVI were found during the five year study period
  • Patients were propensity matched for a 1:1 ratio of patients taking antiplatelet vs anticoagulant drugs, leaving 370 patients for analysis
  • There was a lower rate of admission in the anticoagulant patients vs the antiplatelet ones (9% vs 26%)
  • There were fewer deaths within 6 months in the anticoagulated patients (1.3% vs 3.9%)
  • Median time to stroke was 6-9 days and was not significantly different between the two groups

The authors concluded that the overall stroke rate after BCVI is 6%. They also found an association with lower rates of CVA within 6 months of discharge in patients on anticoagulants. They recommend further studies to determine which type of chemoprophylaxis is best.

My comments: This is an interesting paper that addresses a problem that we don’t have good answers for. The study was well constructed and simple to follow. The two areas that I have questions about are data quality and statistical power.

The NRD is a powerful tool for research, but does have some shortcomings. It only contains information on readmissions, and may not contain some patients who had asymptomatic strokes or massively stroked and died at home. Not knowing these numbers injects some bias and could change the numbers and findings of the study.

The other issue has to do with statistical power. The overall eligible patient group (725 patients) was small in the first place. Propensity matching for a 1:1 ratio shrunk it to only 370, or 185 in each treatment group. My armchair power calculations show that this study would only be able to detect a 7x difference in mortality, and not the 3x difference seen. I’m glad the authors didn’t claim a “significant decrease in CVA” in the anticoagulated patients vs the antiplatelet drug patients.

Here are my questions for the authors:

  1. What do you see as drawbacks to data quality in your study due to use of the National Readmissions Database? How do you think that patients not included in it impacted your data?
  2. Is there anything you can do to improve the statistical power of the study to see if the mortality difference is truly different? Even though your statistical analysis shows significance, the number of subjects doesn’t allow you to claim this until the mortality in the antiplatelet group reaches 9%. 

This was a simple yet fascinating study, and is a start toward helping us determine which of the two drug classes is most appropriate for patients with BCVI.

Reference: Treatment of blunt cerebrovascular injuries: anticoagulants or antiplatelets? EAST Annual Assembly abstract #1, 2020.

Management Of Blunt Carotid / Vertebral Injury

Yesterday I reviewed the most commonly used grading system for blunt carotid / vertebral injury (BCVI). Today, I’ll describe the usual management of these injuries, by grade. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of definitive literature to guide us because these injuries are rare. So here are our best guesses to date.

There are basically three modalities at our disposal for managing BCVI: antithrombotic medication (heparin and/or antiplatelet agents), surgery, and therapeutic angiographic procedures. The choice of therapy is usually based on surgical accessibility and patient safety for anticoagulation. We do know that a number of studies have shown a decrease in stroke events in patients who are heparinized. Unfortunately, this is not always possible due to associated injuries. Antiplatelet agents are usually tolerated after acute trauma, especially low-dose aspirin. Several studies have shown little difference in outcomes in patients receiving heparin vs aspirin/clopidogrel for BCVI.

So what to do? Here are some broad guidelines:

  • Grade I (intimal flap). Heparin or antiplatelet agents should be given. If heparin can be safely administered, it may be preferable in patients who will need other surgical procedures since it can be rapidly reversed just by stopping the infusion. These lesions generally heal completely, so a followup CT angiogram should be scheduled in 1-2 weeks. Medication can be stopped when the lesion heals.
  • Grade II (flap/dissection/hematoma). These injuries are more likely to progress, so heparin is preferred if it can be safely given. Stenting should be considered, especially if the lesion progresses. Long-term anti-platelet medication may be required.
  • Grade III (pseudoaneurysm). Initial heparin therapy is preferred unless contraindicated. Stable pseudoaneurysms should be followed with CTA every 6 months. If the lesion enlarges, then surgical repair should be carried out in accessible injuries, or stenting in inaccessible ones.
  • Grade IV (occlusion). Heparin therapy should be initiated unless contraindicated. Patients who do not suffer a catastrophic stroke may do well with followup antithrombotic therapy. Endovascular treatment does not appear to be helpful.
  • Grade V (transection with extravasation). This lesion is frequently fatal, and the bleeding must be addressed using the best available technique. For lesions that are surgically accessible, the patient should undergo the appropriate vascular procedure. Inaccessible injuries should undergo angiographic treatment, and may require embolization to control bleeding without regard for the possibility of stroke.

References:

  • Scott WW, Sharp S, Figueroa SA, et al. Clinical and radiographic outcomes following traumatic Grade 1 and 2 carotid artery injuries: a 10-year retrospective analysis from a Level I trauma center. J Neurosurg 122:1196, 2015.
  • Scott WW, Sharp S, Figueroa SA, et al. Clinical and radiographic outcomes following traumatic Grade 3 and 4 carotid artery injuries: a 10-year retrospective analysis from a Level 1 trauma center. J Neurosurg 122:610, 2015.
  • Scott WW, Sharp S, Figueroa SA, et al. Clinical and radiological outcomes following traumatic Grade 1 and 2 vertebral artery injuries: a 10-year retrospective analysis from a Level 1 trauma center. J Neurosurg 121:450, 2015.
  • Scott WW, Sharp S, Figueroa SA, et al. Clinical and radiological outcomes following traumatic Grade 3 and 4 vertebral artery injuries: a 10-year retrospective analysis from a Level I trauma center. The Parkland Carotid and Vertebral Artery Injury Survey. J Neurosurg 122:1202, 2015.

 

 

What Does Blunt Carotid / Vertebral Injury Look Like?

In my last two posts, I reviewed who is at risk for blunt carotid / vertebral injury (BCVI) and how to find it. But what does it actually look like, and how is it classified?

A seminal paper from Denver Health (aka Denver General Hospital) in 1999 proposed the most commonly used grading system for BCVI. This Denver scale should not be confused with the Denver criteria that predict risk for BCVI. Here’s a nice graphic that explains the classifications:

Grade I: A mild intimal irregularity is seen. Note the abnormal  narrowed area, representing a small intimal injury, possibly with a small amount of clot.

Grade II: This grade has several presentations. There may be a intraluminal thrombosis/hematoma with (left) or without (right) an intimal flap, or a flap alone (center)

Grade III: There is a full-thickness injury to the vessel with a contained extraluminal extravasation (pseudoaneurysm)

Grade IV: The vessel is completely occluded by flap or thrombus

Grade V: The artery is transected and freely extravasating

In the next post, I’ll finish off with a summary of the treatments for these injuries.

Reference: Blunt carotid arterial injuries: implications of a new grading scale. J Trauma. 47(5): 845-53, 1999.

Who Is At Risk For Blunt Cerebrovascular Injury?

In my last post, I wrote about proper screening for blunt cerebrovascular injury (BCVI). But, as you know, it’s important to screen only when there is a significant risk of the injury being present. Screening using the shotgun approach (screen everyone for everything) yields enough false positive results to present potential danger to your patient.

A variety of authors on this topic have promoted a number of high risk criteria to trigger a screening test. Most make sense, and are related to the anatomy of the vessels in question. The carotid arteries are relatively unprotected, although a bit deep, as they course up the neck. Thus, it is possible to damage them when they suffer a direct and significantly hard blow. Once they enter the skull, they are better protected. However, fractures through key areas of the skull base and face can injure the vessels, even in these protected locations.

The vertebral arteries are deep and relatively protected as they course through the vertebral foramina. However, if the vertebrae are fractured or subluxed, vessel injury can occur.

Finally, and as always, the physical exam is important. If there are unexpected neurologic changes that can’t be explained by other injuries, or there are indications of deep vascular injury, BCVI needs to be considered.

Here is my list of indications to screen for BCVI:

  • Neurologic abnormality not explained by diagnosed injury
  • Arterial epistaxis†
  • Seat belt sign on neck†
  • GCS < 8 (this is the most commonly forgotten one)
  • Petrous bone fracture
  • C‐spine fracture (C1‐C3) or subluxation at any level†
  • Fracture through foramen transversum†
  • LeFort II or III fractures

Bottom line: Be on the lookout for any of the criteria listed above in your trauma patient. If you find one during your initial evaluation, be sure to order a CT angiogram of the neck. And keep an eye out while scanning the head and cervical spine. If any of the other radiographic indications become apparent, add on the CT angiogram at that point.

What’s The Best Test For Blunt Cerebrovascular Injury?

Blunt injury to the carotids or vertebrals (BCVI) is a little more common than originally thought, affecting about 1% of blunt trauma patients. We have many tools available to help us diagnose the problem: duplex ultrasound, CT angiography (CTA), MR angiography (MRA), and even good old conventional 4 vessel angiography.

But which one is “best?” This is a tough question, because there is always some interplay between clinical accuracy and cost. The surgical group at the Medical College of Wisconsin – Milwaukee did a nice job teasing some answers from existing literature on the topic. The authors tried to take a comprehensive look at costs, including money spent to prevent stroke, the cost of complications of therapy, and the overall cost to society if the patient suffers a stroke.

Here are the factoids:

  • For patients at risk for BCVI, the stroke rate is 11% without screening, 6% with duplex ultrasound screening, 4% with MRA, and 1% with either CTA or conventional angiography
  • From a societal standpoint (includes the lifetime costs of stroke for the patient), CTA is the most cost effective at $3,727 per patient
  • From the hospital standpoint (does not include lifetime cost), no screening is the most cost effective, but has the highest stroke rate (11%)
  • CTA prevents the most strokes, and costs about $10,000 per patient while decreasing societal costs by about $32,000 per patient screened

Bottom line: The “best” test for patients at risk for blunt cerebrovascular injury is the CT angiogram. It minimzes the stroke rate, and provides information on all four vessels supplying the brain, which is probably why the duplex ultrasound has a higher miss rate (can’t see the vertebrals or into the skull). But how do you decide who is at risk for this problem? Tune in to the next post!

Reference: Screening for Blunt Cerebrovascular Injuries is Cost-Effective. J Trauma 70(5):1051-1057, 2011.