Vertebral artery injury after blunt cervical trauma: an update

Surg Neurol. 2006 Mar;65(3):238-45; discussion 245-6. doi: 10.1016/j.surneu.2005.06.043.


Background: Vertebral artery injury (VAI) after blunt cervical trauma has been considered to be rare. The incidence of VAI has increased dramatically within the last decade after a heightened awareness of this entity on the part of spine surgeons. Diagnostic or therapeutic guidelines for VAI have not been established fully, however.

Methods: A review of the literature published between 1990 and 2004 was conducted.

Results: The incidence of VAI among total blunt trauma admissions ranged from 0.20% to 0.77%. Most VAI patients remained asymptomatic, but sudden unexpected deterioration was often reported. Distraction/extension, distraction/flexion, and lateral flexion injuries were the major mechanisms of injury. Dissection and occlusion were the frequent vascular injury patterns. Facet joint dislocations and the fractures extending into the transverse foramen were the spine injury patterns closely associated with VAI. Digital subtraction angiography was the most sensitive imaging study, but because of invasiveness, its role as a screening study remained questionable. Neuroradiological intervention was used successfully to treat hemorrhagic VAI and progressing vertebrobasilar stroke. Systemic anticoagulation with heparin was the preferred treatment for mild ischemia. Treatment of asymptomatic patients has been controversial because the natural history of VAI has not been elucidated. Prophylactic anticoagulation with heparin or the use of antiplatelet agents was advocated in recent studies.

Conclusions: Preemptive treatment may be reasonable in selected patients considering the devastating potentials of VAI. The potential risks of heparin or antiplatelet agents in relation to early cervical spine surgery have not been addressed fully, however, and spine surgeons have to weigh the risk and benefit of such treatment cautiously.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Angiography, Digital Subtraction
  • Anticoagulants / therapeutic use
  • Cerebral Infarction / diagnosis
  • Cerebral Infarction / therapy
  • Humans
  • Neck Injuries / diagnosis
  • Neck Injuries / therapy*
  • Vertebral Artery / injuries*
  • Vertebrobasilar Insufficiency / diagnosis
  • Vertebrobasilar Insufficiency / therapy
  • Whiplash Injuries / diagnosis
  • Whiplash Injuries / therapy*
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / diagnosis
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / therapy*


  • Anticoagulants