What is a Vertebral Artery Dissection?

vertebral artery dissection

The body is made up of a fragile system of arteries, blood vessels, and veins. Any time these body parts are damaged, blood cannot flow throughout the body, leading to life-threatening consequences. A traumatic accident can usually lead to circulatory complications, like vertebral artery dissections (VAD). While vertebral artery dissection can result from a car accident or other types of catastrophic accidents, it can also be caused by chiropractic manipulation.

We understand that being injured by a medical professional, like a chiropractor, can be a traumatic experience. We put our faith and trust in healthcare professionals to help us with our ailments, not hurt us. If you’ve suffered from vertebral artery dissection, you may have grounds to pursue a medical malpractice lawsuit. When a healthcare provider causes injuries due to negligence, chances are they’ve hurt others before. Our goal at Bailey, Johnson, & Peck is to stop those medical professionals from hurting anyone else, once and for all. To discuss your claim with an experienced New York medical malpractice attorney, call 518-456-0082 to schedule a free consultation.

What is a Vertebral Artery?

The human body has two vertebral arteries located at the back of the neck near the spine or vertebrae. The vertebral arteries, the left vertebral artery, and the right vertebral artery, are responsible for bringing blood from the heart to the brain and spine. The vertebral arteries run from the aorta through the cervical vertebrae located in the neck and come together at the base of the skull. When the vertebral arteries join together, they create the basilar artery, which is the main artery that provides blood to the back area of the brain. This group of arteries makes up the vertebrobasilar system.

Vertebral Artery vs. Carotid Artery

The carotid and vertebral arteries can be easily confused since both are found in the neck. Two carotid arteries can be found on either side of the neck, providing blood to the face, neck, and brain. The carotid arteries also start in the chest and move upwards to the neck, where they split (bifurcate) into two separate arteries, the internal and external carotid arteries. This means there are technically four carotid arteries on both sides of the neck.

The carotid and vertebral arteries are vital to the human body’s circulatory and central nervous systems. The vertebral arteries are responsible for 20% of the blood flow to the brain, and the carotid arteries provide 80%, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

What is a Vertebral Artery Dissection?

When one or more of the layers of tissue that make up the vertebral artery gets torn, it’s known as a vertebral artery dissection, or VAD. If one or more of the layers in both arteries tear, it’s a bilateral vertebral artery dissection. The cervical vertebral artery consists of three layers:

  • Intima is the vertebral artery’s inner layer closest to the blood flow.
  • Media is the middle layer responsible for ensuring the blood flows in the right direction.
  • Adventitia is the outermost layer that provides the artery’s overall structure.

A cervical artery dissection occurs when blood gets trapped between the intima and media layers. The dissection causes the artery to bulge, disrupting the blood flow, known as a blood clot.

How Does a Vertebral Artery Dissection Lead to a Stroke?

Depending on the severity of the cervical artery dissection, or carotid artery dissection, a person can suffer a stroke. This typically only affects those with more severe cases of cervical artery dissections. The two most common strokes a person can suffer from after a vertebral artery dissection are an ischemic stroke and a hemorrhagic stroke. The type of stroke a person can suffer is determined by how many layers of the artery have been torn.

Ischemic Stroke

Ischemic strokes are caused by a large blood clot located in the vertebral artery that blocks blood flow to the brain. This type of stroke can also occur when a blood clot breaks off and travels to the brain, blocking an artery there. When blood clots block oxygen and other nutrients from reaching the brain, those cells die quickly. If blood flow doesn’t begin quickly enough again, the individual can suffer permanent brain damage and even death.

Hemorrhagic Stroke

A hemorrhagic stroke can occur when a vertebral artery dissection tears all three layers of the artery tissue. Once torn, blood spills out of the artery and is not able to reach the brain. In some cases, the dissection can reach the inside of the brain, which leads to bleeding in the space around the brain or inside the brain. This is known as a subarachnoid hemorrhage.

Strokes are very serious, life-threatening medical emergencies. As soon as you begin to notice the signs of a stroke, it’s imperative that you call 911 immediately. Common stroke symptoms include dizziness, severe headaches, loss of coordination, numbness on one side of the body, loss of vision in one or both eyes, weakness in the legs or arms, or difficulty speaking.

vertebral artery dissection chiropractor

What Causes a Vertebral Artery Dissection?

A vertebral artery dissection can be caused by abrupt movements during cervical spine manipulation therapy, slip-and-fall accidents, car accidents, or other catastrophic accidents. Vertebral artery dissections aren’t always the result of accidents that involve sudden neck movements. It can also be caused by hyperflex positioning of the neck over a long period of time. For example, a person painting their ceiling may experience a vertebral artery dissection since they must have their neck hyperextended for a long time.

Below are other activities or situations that can lead to vertebral artery dissections.

  • Lifting heavy objects or weights
  • Popping the neck
  • Wrestling
  • Receiving CPR
  • Blowing your nose too hard
  • Sneezing
  • Yoga positions that require you to hyperextend your neck
  • Vomiting

Vertebral Artery Dissection From Chiropractic Neck Manipulation

While vertebral artery dissection is rare, it’s commonly caused by chiropractic cervical manipulation. Spinal manipulation is the treatment that chiropractors perform where they forcefully realign the spinal column. They will have the patient lay and twist their body in a variety of ways so they can adjust the positioning of the spinal column with their hands. The chiropractor will turn the neck until it pops in order to realign the cervical spinal joints.

Experienced, board-certified chiropractors perform spinal manipulations daily with no consequences or side effects. It’s very rare for chiropractic spinal manipulation to lead to any adverse outcomes. A study from 2015 showed that only one in 20,000 spinal manipulations led to vertebral artery dissection, but the exact incidence remains unknown. The study also found that 60% of chiropractic vertebral artery dissections lead to subarachnoid hemorrhages.

Chiropractic Malpractice Incident in 2022

In 2022, after a routine chiropractic appointment, a Georgia woman experienced a stroke leading to partial paralysis and a traumatic brain injury. According to the news report, four arteries in her neck were torn, which caused her stroke and other serious injuries. The four arteries in her neck that were torn were most likely the carotid and vertebral arteries. When torn, the damage can lead to strokes.

Following the cervical arterial dissections, the woman suffered cardiac arrest followed by a stroke. For ten minutes, her heart quit beating, which meant there was no blood flow to her brain. This lack of blood flow to her brain caused her to be partially paralyzed and suffer a traumatic brain injury. Although she survived, she’s been left permanently disabled. A 2023 news report stated that while she still cannot swallow or walk, she has begun speaking again and remains hopeful during her recovery.

The chiropractic malpractice event that affected the young woman in Georgia is rare and the worst-case scenario. While these occurrences are rare, it’s essential always to be familiar with the risk factors caused by any medical treatment you receive.

If something like this has happened to you, contact an Albany chiropractic malpractice injury attorney today.

Traumatic VAD vs. Spontaneous VAD

In the sections above, we’ve covered what’s known as “traumatic vertebral artery dissection.” This type of medical complication is caused by a traumatic accident, like a car accident or chiropractic malpractice.

When the arteries are torn without cause or for no reason, it’s known as “spontaneous vertebral artery dissection.” While spontaneous cervical artery dissection is very uncommon, some individuals are at a greater risk than others. The following risk factors can increase your chances of experiencing this medical complication:

  • High blood pressure
  • Vasculitis
  • Smoking
  • Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
  • Cystic medial necrosis
  • Marfan syndrome
  • Polycystic kidney disease
  • Osteogenesis imperfecta
chiropractor vertebral artery dissection

Symptoms of a Vertebral Artery Dissection

The symptoms of vertebral artery dissection may not be very noticeable at first, but if a blood clot interrupts blood flow or the artery ruptures, you could experience stroke-like symptoms.

Individuals suffering from spontaneous vertebral artery dissection may experience the following symptoms:

  • Neck pain that is usually limited to one side
  • Vertigo
  • Severe headaches
  • Lack of coordination and balance
  • Hearing loss
  • Dizziness
  • Double vision or vision loss
  • Trouble speaking

If you or a loved one suffered any of the above symptoms following chiropractic manipulation, you could pursue a medical malpractice case against your doctor.

Is a Vertebral Artery Dissection Deadly?

Patients suffering from vertebral artery dissection usually have a positive outcome, with 80% making a full recovery. Patients are at a greater risk of death if they experience strokes, intracranial dissection, subarachnoid hemorrhage, and/or brainstem infarction following the initial injury.

Treatment for Vertebral Artery Dissection

To diagnose vertebral artery dissection, after obtaining informed consent, your doctor will request a magnetic resonance angiography, a combination of a magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI) paired with angiography, which can capture images of the vertebral arteries.

The doctor usually lets the dissection heal on its own if the arterial dissection occurs without a stroke or brain hemorrhage. During recovery, though, they may prescribe supportive care such as an anticoagulation treatment to lower the risks of blood clots.

If the vertebral dissection caused a stroke, the doctor may recommend an endovascular treatment to remove the blood clot. Depending on the severity of the tear and other potential health complications, the doctor may recommend an angioplasty, endovascular embolization, intracranial stenting, or surgery.

Can You Sue for a Vertebral Artery Dissection?

Yes, if chiropractic malpractice or other forms of negligence led to a vertebral artery dissection, you can pursue legal action against the responsible party. The key to any medical malpractice claim is establishing the 4 Ds of negligence:

  • Duty of Care: Medical professionals owe their patients a duty of care, which is to provide them with competent and standard medical care.
  • Dereliction of Duty: When a healthcare provider breaches the standard duty of care, it’s known as a dereliction or breached duty of care. If a doctor does not provide the same medical treatment as another competent doctor that works in the same field, they have committed dereliction of duty.
  • Direct Cause: The third step in proving negligence is to show that there is a direct relation to the treatment given or lack thereof and the injuries the victim suffered. In this case, your medical malpractice attorney will prove that your chiropractor caused vertebral artery dissection due to their negligence.
  • Damages: Finally, you must prove that your injuries and damages led to financial and/or emotional losses.

Albany medical malpractice attorneys at Bailey, Johnson, & Peck have knowledge and experience handling these types of cases. Your attorney will evaluate your medical malpractice claim and work diligently to prove the 4 D’s of negligence using your medical records, expert medical opinions, witness statements, and more.

Chiropractor Malpractice Damages

The chiropractic malpractice attorneys at Bailey, Johnson, & Peck have recovered millions of dollars in compensation for New York residents pursuing medical malpractice claims. You could be entitled to the following damages from a medical malpractice lawsuit:

  • Medical bills, both past and future
  • Lost wages
  • Loss of earning capacity
  • Home health care expenses, like home nurses or aids
  • Medical equipment expenses, like wheelchairs, grab bars, etc.
  • Physical therapy costs
  • Loss of consortium
  • Mental health counseling costs
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Funeral and burial expenses are the injuries that resulted in wrongful death
vertebral artery dissection symptoms

Call Albany Chiropractor Malpractice Lawyers at Bailey, Johnson & Peck Today

The chiropractic malpractice attorneys at Bailey, Johnson, & Peck have provided expert legal representation for New York residents for over 40 years. When you work with our attorneys for your medical malpractice claim, you can rest assured that we will do everything possible to recover the maximum compensation that you deserve. To discuss your medical malpractice case with one of our Albany personal injury attorneys, call 518-456-0082 to schedule a free consultation.


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