Spinal Arteriovenous Malformation

What is a Spinal Arteriovenous Malformation?

Arteriovenous malformations are abnormal blood vessel structures that form on the spinal cord. This rare condition causes blood to flow from the arteries to the veins without traveling through the capillaries.

The resulting interruption in blood flow leaves part of the spinal cord without a supply of oxygen. Important cells die, leading to spinal cord bleeding and compression. Most people don’t know they have the condition until an injury, surgery, or an unknown cause triggers the bleeding to begin.

What are the Symptoms of Spinal Arteriovenous Malformations?

Most blood vessel abnormalities form as the fetus develops in the womb. When the condition finally overwhelms the lack of capillaries and triggers bleeding, you’ll notice symptoms like:

  • Slow developing weakness in any part of the body or spread across multiple limbs and regions
  • Back pain and numbness that increases over the months and years
  • Sudden and unexpected trouble with walking, urinating, or movement
  • Outward signs of internal hemorrhage like extensive and dark bruising around the spine

Spinal Arteriovenous Malformation Causes

There is no specific cause of spinal arteriovenous malformations (AVM), some occurrences are congenital and other incidents happen later in life. Because the disease emerges at birth, some think it has genetic origins. Although symptoms are absent at birth, lifestyle and health conditions may play a role in its development as the person ages.

The connections to genetics link the disorder to hemorrhagic telangiectasia or Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome. Even though it may be coincidental, family history and individual health can increase the risk associated with AVM.

The most prevalent cases develop in the fetus and can occur in any part of the body. When the condition develops inside the spinal cord, the central nervous system is at high risk. The effects of neurological damage happen over time, so the condition can appear at any age. In some cases, the disease isn’t discovered until circulation problems interfere with the body’s flow of blood or injuries strike the spinal cord.

How is a Spinal Arteriovenous Malformation Treated?

It’s necessary to use contrast imaging to explore the spinal vascular system to determine if any capillaries or other parts are missing. When a diagnosis of spinal arteriovenous malformations is confirmed, patients may not need any treatment beyond monitoring.

Active bleeding causes permanent damage to the spinal cord. Internal embolization can fix malformed blood vessels without major surgery, but open bleeding lesions must be removed surgically to keep the spinal cord cells from dying or breaking down. It’s important to watch for signs of disturbance in your nervous system after being diagnosed with spinal arteriovenous malformations so you can get the bleeding under control before permanent damage occurs.

Spinal Arteriovenous Malformation Prevention

There is no medical treatment to prevent the genetic mutation from developing in the fetus, nor can doctors predict the chances of the disease materializing, even with the knowledge of the family’s history. If you are pregnant or trying to conceive, you need to talk with your doctor if there’s a history of AVM in your family. The body changes during pregnancy can worsen the condition and affect the fetus during the early stages of development.

Precautions to prevent excessive harm from occurring start with consistent monitoring and regular check-ups with your doctor once the condition is recognized. The major concern when AVM is diagnosed is internal bleeding, which can lead to stroke and sometimes death. Healthy lifestyles prevent high blood pressure along with hormonal fluctuations – both can cause ruptures in the blood vessels, dangerously aggravating the condition.

Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
November 20, 2017