Vertebral Artery Injuries in Trauma
There are two vertebral arteries on each side
of your neck. They provide blood supply to
the tissues there. They also provide some
blood to the brain. Injuries near your spinal
column in your neck can injure these arteries.
This can cause swelling and bleeding which
may compress the many nerves that make up
your spinal cord. This can prevent blood
flow to the spinal cord or brain.
What are the causes?
ξ A blunt, powerful blow to the neck
ξ Hyperextension, such as whiplash
ξ Piercing neck injuries (gun shot or
What are the symptoms?
Many times there are no symptoms of this
type of injury. This makes it hard to
diagnose. If the injury is severe, you
ξ May be drowsy
ξ Have a hard time swallowing
ξ Have a headache, neck pain,
dizziness, ringing in the ears
ξ Have problems with vision
ξ Have swelling or bruising in the area
you were injured
What tests will be done?
An angiogram or arteriogram is an x-ray
or scan of your arteries. Contrast dye will be
used to make the arteries easier to see.
Blood will be taken for testing. Other scans
may be done such as a CT scan, MRI or an
How are vertebral artery injuries treated?
The health care team watches for any effects
on the nerves such as loss of movement or
We often need to prevent blood clots with
this type of injury. Aspirin, heparin and
warfarin (Coumadin®) are the names of
common medicines used. These medicines
prevent your blood from clotting and
blocking off a blood vessel. Heparin can be
given as a shot, or through the IV. Aspirin
and warfarin are taken as a pill. Frequent
blood tests may be needed when these
medicines are used, to insure that your blood
stays in a safe range.
You may have surgery to repair your
injured blood vessels if needed.
If the vessel is fully blocked, surgery is not
an option. Your health care team will
manage your symptoms.
After you leave the hospital, you will
follow-up with your doctor for further
testing to decide if more treatment is needed.
You will likely keep taking blood thinners.
You may need blood drawn often to be sure
you are getting the proper amount. There
may be another scan done in a few months
to look at your arteries again.
What complications may occur?
ξ Anticoagulants may increase
bleeding. Minor symptoms of this
are: bruises, bloody nose, and blood
in your spit. Dangerous type of
bleeding can occur around your brain,
or in your gut, or kidneys. You will
call the doctor if you see blood in
urine, stool or if you have a sudden
head ache that is not normal for you.
Tests may be done to see if there is
bleeding inside your body that
cannot be seen.
ξ If the injured artery is stopping blood
flow to the brain, you may have
symptoms of a stroke. These include
sudden onset facial numbness,
drooping, weakness, loss of feeling
to one side of the body, trouble
swallowing, or vision changes. You
should call a doctor or call 911 if
new symptoms like these occur.
ξ Your doctor will balance the risk of
bleeding with the risk of stroke in
order to plan the best treatment.
ξ At home, avoid bleeding. Use an
electric razor, soft toothbrush, avoid
high-contact sports, and take all
medicines as directed.
When should I call my doctor?
ξ Severe or increasing headaches
ξ Changes in your vision
ξ Continued nausea or vomiting
ξ Increased sleepiness
ξ Change in behavior
ξ Problems with walking or balance
ξ Any drainage from you incision or
any signs of infection (increased
redness, swelling, drainage, increase
in pain, fever greater that 100 F
ξ Changes in speech
ξ Patients of the Neurosurgery clinic:
ξ After hours, nights, weekends and
holidays, call UW Hospital Paging
Operator at 608-262-0486. Ask for
the resident on call for you clinic.
Leave your name and phone
number with the area code. The
doctor will call you back.
ξ If you live out of the area, please call
1-800-323-8942 and ask for your
Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you
have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This
is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each
person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using
this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright © 10/2017. University of Wisconsin Hospitals
and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#6934.