What is a Vascular Ring?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2019
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A vascular ring is a congenital anomaly of the aorta, one of the body's key blood vessels. In people with vascular rings, the aorta and related blood vessels did not form as expected during fetal development. Instead, a blood vessel loops around the trachea and esophagus, putting pressure on these structures. There are a number of different types of vascular rings, all named after the specific malformations involved, and the abnormality can be partial or total.

When fetuses are developing, their bodies go through a number of changes as the body develops tissue that will be repurposed in a variety of ways. Occasionally, mistakes happen during this process and a structure is moved or retained, leading to anomalies such as vascular rings. This can occur very early in fetal development and seems to be a random condition, rather than something that is the result of genetic or environmental factors.

Some patients have a vascular ring and do not experience symptoms. Others have heavy, labored breathing and experience choking and difficulty swallowing. These symptoms are caused by obstruction or compression created by the vascular ring. Vascular rings occur in people of all races and both sexes, and there are no obvious risk factors for this relatively unusual heart abnormality.


In some patients, the vascular ring leads to variations in the pulse that can clue a doctor in to the fact that the patient is experiencing a heart problem. In other instances, the vascular ring is revealed on a medical imaging study of the upper chest. If a patient has a vascular ring and is experiencing symptoms, the recommended treatment is surgery to divide the vascular ring and relieve the pressure.

The surgery is performed by a heart surgeon. It is relatively low risk for most patients and leads doctors to recommend surgery over a wait and see approach to treat the ring as early and as effectively as possible. After undergoing surgery to repair a vascular ring, the patient will need to spend several days in the hospital and may need to observe precautions at home for several weeks during recovery. Once the patient is completely healed, the repaired ring should not pose any obstacles to activities.

Doctors have noted this abnormality since the 1700s. Vascular rings are usually diagnosed when people are very young. Parents who are told to take their infants and young children to a cardiologist for further evaluation for a suspected heart anomaly should not panic. Heart conditions take a wide range of forms and many are very manageable.


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