Vertebral Artery Disease

Vertebral artery disease goes by several names. Some medical professionals use the term “vertebrobasilar insufficiency.” Others refer to “vertebral artery stenosis.” No matter what you call it, the impact is generally the same: your brain isn’t getting all the blood it needs.

Vertebral artery disease occurs when plaque builds up inside the vertebral arteries, the two arteries that provide blood flow to the back of the brain. Plaque builds up over time through a process called atherosclerosis.

When plaque builds up, the arteries harden. Plaque can grow and block the flow of blood to the brain. If your arteries harden and narrow, your brain won’t get enough oxygen. When that happens, brain cells can die.

The vertebral arteries supply oxygen and nutrients to the part of the brain responsible for vision, coordination, and balance. That means insufficiency (not enough blood) in this area can affect your ability to see, walk, and perform other basic activities.

Vertebral artery disease is a life-threatening condition that can lead to stroke and disability.

Diagnosing Vertebral Artery Disease

The risk factors for vertebral artery disease are the same as other cerebrovascular conditions. Typically, it’s related to a buildup of plaque in your arteries, also known as atherosclerosis.

Risks include:

  • A family history of atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries)
  • Coronary or peripheral artery disease 
  • Two or more of the following: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, a family history of stroke or artery disease

A diagnosis begins with a health history and thorough exam. If your doctor suspects you have vertebral artery disease, they may recommend an MRA or angiography (X-ray study using injected dye).

Treating Vertebral Artery Disease

If you have been told you have vertebral artery disease, you should quit smoking right away. Try to lower your cholesterol through diet and regular exercise. Your doctor may also recommend medication to control high blood pressure or lower your cholesterol.

Depending on the location of the plaque buildup, surgery may be an option. Surgical options may include:

  • Angioplasty – Uses a catheter to insert a tiny balloon to open the artery
  • Angioplasty with stenting – Uses a mesh stent to hold the artery open

A surgical procedure to remove plaque buildup is called an endarterectomy. In this procedure, the surgeon makes a small incision in your neck to expose the vertebral artery. The surgeon then scrapes out the plaque and sews the artery back together. Other surgical options involve bypass grafts or other methods to redirect blood flow through another, healthier vessel.

Angioplasty is a catheter-based procedure that uses a small balloon to push your vessels wider. A stent is used, if necessary, to help keep the artery open. Both procedures involve risk and should be performed by highly skilled endovascular surgeons like those at Aurora BayCare.

Experts in Vertebral Arteries

We have the region’s most specialized neurosurgery team, including interventional neurologists and endovascular surgeons who perform minimally invasive procedures like angioplasty and stenting.

Our neurosurgery specialists and subspecialists deliver outstanding care. We provide leading technical expertise combined with a commitment to clear communication. When you have a complicated condition like vertebral artery disease, we want to be sure you understand your options and are equipped to make an informed decision during this critical time.

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