What are Arteriovenous Malformations?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) are vascular abnormalities which most commonly occur in the brain. They are believed to be congenital in nature, with all evidence suggesting that people are born with the AVM. Symptoms experienced by the patient depend on the location and size of the arteriovenous malformation. Treatment options are available to manage the condition if it becomes a problem.

Arteriovenous malformations can cause severe headaches.
Arteriovenous malformations can cause severe headaches.

In someone with an arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal connection is made between the arteries and the veins in the blood supply. This bypasses the distribution system which is designed to move blood through the area affected by the malformation. As a result, the patient experiences lack of oxygen because the arteries are not able to deliver it to end destinations. The malformation looks like a tangled web of blood vessels, and it grows over time.

Radiosurgery such as the gamma knife procedure may be used to treat arteriovenous malformations in the brain.
Radiosurgery such as the gamma knife procedure may be used to treat arteriovenous malformations in the brain.

Several risks are associated with arteriovenous malformations. In the case of a brain AVM, the first is damage to the brain caused by oxygen deprivation, which can lead to stroke-like symptoms and other signs of neurological damage including seizures, headaches, and back pain. Additionally, there is a risk that the AVM could rupture, causing bleeding in the brain and a neurological emergency is the growth is large enough. Low-level bleeding can also cause minor damage which may not be immediately connected with an arteriovenous malformation unless the growth has been recognized and diagnosed. Arteriovenous malformations elsewhere in the body can lead to a variety of complications.

Medical imaging studies may be used to detect AVM.
Medical imaging studies may be used to detect AVM.

Symptoms of arteriovenous malformations can set in around the 30s, if at all. Medical imaging studies, including angiograms to look at the blood vessels, can be used to diagnose an AVM. In many patients, however, the growth is discovered as an incidental finding when doctors are looking for or treating something else. In some cases, AVMs are only identified after death, when a pathologist notes during an autopsy that the patient had an arteriovenous malformation and lived with it for life without realizing it.

Damage to the brain caused by oxygen deprivation may occur in the case of a brain AVM.
Damage to the brain caused by oxygen deprivation may occur in the case of a brain AVM.

When arteriovenous malformations are diagnosed, treatments can include radiation and embolization to address the malformed blood vessels. A doctor may also determine that a wait and see approach is the best treatment, in which case the growth will be monitored for changes or signs of instability. If problems occur, treatment will be offered. This helps patients avoid unnecessary medical procedures which might be used to treat an AVM which actually requires no treatment or further action.

Back pain may develop as a result of AVM.
Back pain may develop as a result of AVM.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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