The literature on vascular trauma contains little information on the management of vertebral artery injuries. We have reviewed our experience consisting of 23 patients with vertebral artery injuries caused by 19 gunshot wounds, two stab wounds, one shotgun wound, and one blunt injury. Twelve patients sustained unilateral vertebral artery thrombosis, seven patients had vertebral AV fistulae (three jugular vein, four vertebral vein) and four patients sustained mural injury without thrombosis. Six patients (26.1%) developed major neurologic deficits of which five could be directly attributed to CNS missile injury. One patient had transient vertebrobasilar ischemia on the basis of a vertebral AV fistula.
Four of the seven vertebral AV fistulae were managed solely by therapeutic embolization and two patients early in the series underwent surgical management alone. One patient had therapeutic embolization of the proximal vertebral artery and operative distal vertebral artery ligation for an AV fistula. The four patients who died (17.4%) did so as a direct result of their CNS missile injury.
We conclude that: 1) unilateral vertebral artery occlusion seldom results in a neurologic deficit if there is a normal contralateral vertebral artery and PICA (posterior inferior cerebellar artery) blood supply is preserved; 2) accurate assessment of a vertebral artery injury requires contralateral vertebral arteriogram; 3) management of vertebral artery injury is simplified by proximal, and if possible distal, therapeutic embolization; 4) an anterior approach to the C1–2 vertebral artery is a satisfactory method of obtaining distal surgical control, obviating the need to unroof the bony canal of the vertebral artery; 5) angiography is necessary in penetrating neck trauma to identify occult vascular injuries.