What are the Vertebral Arteries?

Christine Hudson

The vertebral arteries are major arteries in the neck which help to supply blood to significant portions of the brain. These arteries branch off from the subclavian arteries, which are located in the chest and receive blood directly from the aorta of the heart. There is one vertebral artery on each side of the body until they meet inside the skull, at which point they form the basilar artery and deliver blood directly to the brain. This supplies most of the brain with oxygenated blood.

A vertebral artery on each side of the body meets inside the skull and forms the basilar artery, which delivers blood directly to the brain.
A vertebral artery on each side of the body meets inside the skull and forms the basilar artery, which delivers blood directly to the brain.

Vertebral artery dissection (VAD) is a known ailment which may occur in the vertebral arteries and lead to aneurysm or stroke if not discovered early. VAD is a more prominent cause of stroke in children and adults under age 45 than in older adults. The risk of VAD may also be increased by smoking, hypertension, or the use of certain oral contraceptives. Strokes resulting from this condition can cause paralysis, loss of motor functions, and other issues. Recovering from these side effects may take months or even years depending on severity.

Severely restricted blood flow in the arteries may lead to stroke.
Severely restricted blood flow in the arteries may lead to stroke.

Before performing work on the necks of clients who are elderly or have experienced major accidents or trauma, a massage or physical therapist may perform a vertebral artery test. The reason this test is conducted is to determine whether or not these arteries are blocked or occluded. If it is determined that the vertebral arteries are impaired, the therapist may refer the patient to a physician before working with him.

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Vertebral artery dissection is a more prominent cause of stroke in children than in older adults.
Vertebral artery dissection is a more prominent cause of stroke in children than in older adults.

As the vertebral arteries are part of the system which provides the brain with 20% of it's blood, they may cause chronic dizziness or numbness in the neck or arm if they are pinched or shut off. These symptoms may be experienced after an accident or any neck trauma if plaque buildup is present in the vertebral arteries, but they may also appear for no apparent reason at all. When suffering from these symptoms, it is usually recommended that individuals visit a medical professional, as prolonged injury without treatment may cause extensive damage.

Smoking increases the risk of VAD.
Smoking increases the risk of VAD.

Preventative medicine and procedures are typically best to avoid serious conditions in the vertebral arteries. Surgery may be required if fatty deposits, or plaque, are clogging in the arteries and restricting blood flow. The surgical procedures are extreme measures, but allow the arteries to be cleaned of the plaque and blood flow to be restored. Other preventative measures may include dietary changes and medication.

Vertebral artery problems can cause chronic dizziness and numbness in the arm or neck.
Vertebral artery problems can cause chronic dizziness and numbness in the arm or neck.
The vertebral arteries are part of the Circle of Willis, a ring or circle of arteries located at the base of the brain.
The vertebral arteries are part of the Circle of Willis, a ring or circle of arteries located at the base of the brain.
Vertebral artery dissection may occur in the vertebral arteries, and lead to an aneurysm if not discovered early.
Vertebral artery dissection may occur in the vertebral arteries, and lead to an aneurysm if not discovered early.
People with a history of hypertension are at increased risk for vertebral artery dissection.
People with a history of hypertension are at increased risk for vertebral artery dissection.

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