Arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) occur when the connections between the veins and arteries don't form correctly and the vessels become entangled. Usually, these abnormalities develop in the fetus, or in a newborn baby.
AVMs can occur anywhere in the body. When they happen in the spinal cord and brain, they are called neurological AVMs, and are more likely to affect different parts of your body. This is because the brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system.
AVMs are equally common among different races and ethnicities, and in both sexes. Most people don't even know that they have a spinal AVM—it may be found during treatment or diagnosis for another condition.
Spinal AVMs can cause problems with circulation because they interfere with your body's blood flow. Normally, your arteries transport oxygen-rich blood away from your heart and to cells throughout your body. Your veins carry that blood, with its oxygen stores used up, back to your lungs and heart. But the malformations of your arteries and veins in spinal AVMs don't allow this natural cycle to occur because of missing capillaries, which regulate blood flow.
Spinal AVMs can lead to a serious situation if they rupture, causing bleeding into surrounding areas. They can also cause symptoms by compressing parts of your spinal cord.
Spinal AVMs often don’t cause any symptoms. When they do, they're usually minor and hard to notice. In a few people, however, the symptoms can be severe enough to affect their ability to function.
These are the most common symptoms of a spinal AVM:
If you have symptoms, your healthcare provider may use these tests to find out if you have a spinal AVM:
Treatment depends on the location and type of AVMs you have and the symptoms they cause. You may require surgery by a neurosurgeon to remove the AVM. Or, endovascular embolization may be used instead. This is less invasive than surgery in which a radiologist uses a catheter (small, thin tube) to inject an embolizing material to close off certain vessels. Radiation therapy is also an option. Focused energy is used to damage and seal off the abnormal vessels.
Your doctor may also give you medicines to treat symptoms, such as back pain, caused by AVMs.
If spinal AVMs aren't treated, they may cause damage to your spinal cord because it can't get the oxygen it needs from your blood. A spinal AVM may also bleed.
Even though a spinal AVM may not always cause symptoms, it can still be dangerous, particularly if it starts to cause symptoms. Your health care provider should check any suspicious symptoms you have. These may include:
Your doctor should evaluate any signs or symptoms that indicate a problem with your nervous system, such as headaches that won't go away, seizures, and difficulty controlling your muscles.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
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