Vertebral artery injury in cervical spine surgery: anatomical considerations, management, and preventive measures

Spine J. 2009 Jan-Feb;9(1):70-6. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2008.03.006. Epub 2008 May 27.


Background context: Vertebral artery (VA) injury can be a catastrophic iatrogenic complication of cervical spine surgery. Although the incidence is rare, it has serious consequences including fistulas, pseudoaneurysm, cerebral ischemia, and death. It is therefore imperative to be familiar with the anatomy and the instrumentation techniques when performing anterior or posterior cervical spine surgeries.

Purpose: To provide a review of VA injury during common anterior and posterior cervical spine procedures with an evaluation of the surgical anatomy, management, and prevention of this injury.

Study design: Comprehensive literature review.

Methods: A systematic review of Medline for articles related to VA injury in cervical spine surgery was conducted up to and including journal articles published in 2007. The literature was then reviewed and summarized.

Results: Overall, the risk of VA injury during cervical spine surgery is low. In anterior cervical procedures, lateral dissection puts the VA at the most risk, so sound anatomical knowledge and constant reference to the midline are mandatory during dissection. With the development and rise in popularity of posterior cervical stabilization and instrumentation, recognition of the dangers of posterior drilling and insertion of transarticular screws and pedicle screws is important. Anomalous vertebral anatomy increases the risk of injury and preoperative magnetic resonance imaging and/or computed tomography (CT) scans should be carefully reviewed. When the VA is injured, steps should be taken to control local bleeding. Permanent occlusion or ligation should only be attempted if it is known that the contralateral VA is capable of providing adequate collateral circulation. With the advent of endovascular repair, this treatment option can be considered when a VA injury is encountered.

Conclusions: VA injury during cervical spine surgery is a rare but serious complication. It can be prevented by careful review of preoperative imaging studies, having a sound anatomical knowledge and paying attention to surgical landmarks intraoperatively. When a VA injury occurs, prompt recognition and management are important.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cervical Vertebrae / surgery*
  • Humans
  • Orthopedic Procedures / adverse effects*
  • Spinal Injuries / surgery*
  • Vertebral Artery / injuries*