Arteriovenous Malformation - Treatment

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How Can AVMs and Other Vascular Lesions Be Treated?

Medication can often alleviate general symptoms such as headache, back pain, and seizures caused by AVMs and other vascular lesions. However, the definitive treatment for AVMs is either surgery or focused irradiation therapy. Venous malformations and capillary telangiectases rarely require surgery; moreover, their structures are diffuse and usually not suitable for surgical correction and they usually do not require treatment anyway. Cavernous malformations are usually well defined enough for surgical removal, but surgery on these lesions is less common than for AVMs because they do not pose the same risk of hemorrhage.

The decision to perform surgery on any individual with an AVM requires a careful consideration of possible benefits versus risks. The natural history of an individual AVM is difficult to predict; however, left untreated, they have the potential of causing significant hemorrhage, which may result in serious neurological deficits or death. On the other hand, surgery on any part of the central nervous system carries its own risks as well; AVM surgery is associated with an estimated 8 percent risk of serious complications or death. There is no easy formula that can allow physicians and their patients to reach a decision on the best course of therapy -- all therapeutic decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis.

Today, three surgical options exist for the treatment of AVMs: conventional surgery, endovascular embolization, and radiosurgery. The choice of treatment depends largely on the size and location of an AVM.

Conventional surgery involves entering the brain or spinal cord and removing the central portion of the AVM, including the fistula, while causing as little damage as possible to surrounding neurological structures. This surgery is most appropriate when an AVM is located in a superficial portion of the brain or spinal cord and is relatively small in size. AVMs located deep inside the brain generally cannot be approached through conventional surgical techniques because there is too great a possibility that functionally important brain tissue will be damaged or destroyed.

Endovascular embolization and radiosurgery are less invasive than conventional surgery and offer safer treatment options for some AVMs located deep inside the brain. In endovascular embolization the surgeon guides a catheter though the arterial network until the tip reaches the site of the AVM. The surgeon then introduces a substance that will plug the fistula, correcting the abnormal pattern of blood flow. This process is known as embolization because it causes an embolus (an object or substance) to travel through blood vessels, eventually becoming lodged in a vessel and obstructing blood flow. The embolic materials used to create an artificial blood clot in the center of an AVM include fast-drying biologically inert glues, fibered titanium coils, and tiny balloons. Since embolization usually does not permanently obliterate the AVM, it is usually used as an adjunct to surgery or to radiosurgery to reduce the blood flow through the AVM and make the surgery safer.

Radiosurgery is an even less invasive therapeutic approach. It involves aiming a beam of highly focused radiation directly on the AVM. The high dose of radiation damages the walls of the blood vessels making up the lesion. Over the course of the next several months, the irradiated vessels gradually degenerate and eventually close, leading to the resolution of the AVM.

Embolization frequently proves incomplete or temporary, although in recent years new embolization materials have led to improved results. Radiosurgery often has incomplete results as well, particularly when an AVM is large, and it poses the additional risk of radiation damage to surrounding normal tissues. Moreover, even when successful, complete closure of an AVM takes place over the course of many months following radiosurgery. During that period, the risk of hemorrhage is still present. However, both techniques now offer the possibility of treating deeply situated AVMs that had previously been inaccessible. And in many individuals, staged embolization followed by conventional surgical removal or by radiosurgery is now performed, resulting in further reductions in mortality and complication rates.

Because so many variables are involved in treating AVMs, doctors must assess the danger posed to individuals largely on a case-by-case basis. The consequences of hemorrhage are potentially disastrous, leading many clinicians to recommend surgical intervention whenever the physical characteristics of an AVM appear to indicate a greater-than-usual likelihood of significant bleeding and resultant neurological damage.

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See what others are saying

Comment from: Vin, 45-54 Male (Patient) Published: May 23

I had treatment by embolization for an arteriovenous fistula (AVF) type 3 that seems to have been successful. My AVF resulted in a brain hemorrhage that I had triggered after a high blood pressure argument! Take note.

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Comment from: drexes, 25-34 Male (Patient) Published: September 12

I was born with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in the left leg below the knee. It started under the big toe and progressed to just about 5 inches under my knee, all internal, over 24 years. I was treated with embolization procedures with ethanol during this time period. I had the leg amputated to get rid of the entire thing. I needed major ankle surgery in 2006 for muscular and skeletal deformation caused by trying to relieve the pain in my foot during walking on it over 24 years. The second opinion I got pertaining to the surgery said the surgery would be a success but the underlying AVM would cause deformation again every 5 to 7 years and that I would have a more normal life with less pain with a prosthetic, which turned out to be true.

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