Vertebrobasilar circulatory disorders are conditions in which blood supply to the back of the brain is disrupted.
Two vertebral arteries join to form the basilar artery. These are the main blood vessels that provide blood flow to the back of the brain.
The areas in the back of the brain that receive blood from these arteries are needed to keep a person alive. These areas control breathing, heart rate, swallowing, vision, movement, and posture or balance. All of the nervous system signals that connect the brain to the rest of the body pass through the back of the brain.
Many different conditions may reduce or stop blood flow in the back part of the brain. The most common risk factors are smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, and a high cholesterol level. These are similar to the risk factors for any stroke.
Other causes include:
- Tear in the wall of an artery
- Blood clots in the heart that travel to the vertebrobasilar arteries and cause a stroke
- Blood vessel inflammation
- Connective tissue diseases
- Problems in the spinal bones of the neck
- Outside pressure on the vertebrobasilar arteries, such as from a salon sink (nicknamed beauty parlor syndrome)
Common symptoms may include:
- Difficulty pronouncing words, slurred speech
- Difficulty swallowing
- Double vision or vision loss
- Numbness or tingling, most often on the face or scalp
- Sudden falls (drop attacks)
- Vertigo (sensation of things spinning around)
- Memory loss
Other symptoms may include:
- Bladder or bowel control problems
- Difficulty walking (unsteady gait)
- Headache, neck ache
- Hearing loss
- Muscle weakness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain in one or more parts of the body, which gets worse with touch and cold temperatures
- Poor coordination
- Sleepiness or sleep from which the person cannot be awakened
- Sudden, uncoordinated movements
- Sweating on the face, arms, or legs
Exams and Tests
You may have the following tests, depending on the cause:
Vertebrobasilar symptoms that start suddenly are a medical emergency that need to be treated right away. Treatment is similar to that for stroke.
To treat and prevent the condition, your health care provider may recommend:
- Taking blood-thinning drugs, such as aspirin, warfarin (Coumadin), or clopidogrel (Plavix) to lower the risk for stroke
- Changing your diet
- Medicine to lower cholesterol and better control blood pressure
- Losing weight
- Stopping smoking
Invasive procedures or surgery to treat narrowed arteries in this part of the brain are not well studied or proven.
The outlook depends on:
- The amount of brain damage
- What body functions have been affected
- How quickly you get treatment
- How quickly you recover
Each person has a different recovery time and need for long-term care. Problems with moving, thinking, and talking often improve in the first weeks or months. Some people will keep improving for months or years.
Complications of vertebrobasilar circulatory disorders are stroke and its complications. These include:
- Breathing (respiratory) failure (which may require the use of a machine to help the person breathe)
- Lung problems (especially lung infections)
- Heart attack
- Lack of fluids in the body (dehydration) and swallowing problems (sometimes requiring tube feeding)
- Problems with movement or sensation, including paralysis and numbness
- Formation of clots in the legs
- Vision loss
Complications caused by medicines or surgery may also occur.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call 911 or your local emergency number, or get to the emergency room if you have any symptoms of a vertebrobasilar circulatory disorder.
Vertebrobasilar insufficiency; Posterior circulation ischemia; Beauty parlor syndrome; TIA - vertebrobasilar insufficiency; Dizziness - vertebrobasilar insufficiency; Vertigo - vertebrobasilar insufficiency
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Kernan WN, Ovbiagele B, Black HR, et al. Guidelines for the prevention of stroke in patients with stroke and transient ischemic attack: a guideline for healthcare professionals from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Stroke. 2014;45(7):2160-2236. PMID: 24788967 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24788967/.
Kim JS, Caplan LR. Vertebrobasilar disease. In: Grotta JC, Albers GW, Broderick JP, et al, eds. Stroke: Pathophysiology, Diagnosis, and Management. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 26.
Liu X, Dai Q, Ye R, et al; BEST Trial Investigators. Endovascular treatment versus standard medical treatment for vertebrobasilar artery occlusion (BEST): an open-label, randomised controlled trial. Lancet Neurol. 2020;19(2):115-122. PMID: 31831388 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31831388/.
Review Date 8/2/2020
Updated by: Amit M. Shelat, DO, FACP, FAAN, Attending Neurologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology, Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.