What is Arteriovenous Malformation? A Neurosurgeon Explains

An arteriovenous malformation sounds complicated, but it doesn’t have to be confusing.

  • Arteriovenous malformations are tangles of blood vessels that disrupt blood flow.
  • They develop before you are born.
  • They can cause symptoms similar to a stroke and are at risk for rupturing.
  • Treatment options include monitoring, surgery, embolization, and Gamma Knife radiosurgery.

Understanding Your Arteriovenous Malformation

Self-education is a great way to reduce the stress of a newly diagnosed medical condition, and an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) is no exception. Learning about how your AVM developed, the symptoms and the treatment options available in northern NJ will help you know what to expect during this time. This sense of control and confidence lends itself to peace of mind as you move through the diagnosis and treatment process and onward into recovery.

What is Arteriovenous Malformation?

An AVM is not a tumor, but rather is in developmental in nature. Your AVM formed before you were born, as your body grew and developed. During that time, something caused some of the blood vessels within your brain to form incorrectly, creating a tangle of vessels instead of an orderly system like in the rest of your body. As a result, the blood does not flow as it typically would, and an area of your brain may not be getting as much oxygen as it requires. There is also a risk of pressure building up and causing the blood vessels to rupture, leading to a hemorrhage. This is why it is important to work with a neurosurgeon experienced with helping NJ patients treat their AVM to ensure no further damage occurs.

Arteriovenous Malformation Symptoms

The symptoms of an AVM are very similar to a stroke. This is because when a person has a stroke, the brain is not able to get enough oxygen. A similar process can happen with an AVM, which is one reason your doctor may recommend you undergo treatment. Not all patients will experience AVM symptoms, but if you do, they can include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Visual disturbances
  • Changes in hearing
  • Numbness, muscle weakness and loss of coordination
  • Cognitive issues, such as difficulties with memory or focus
  • Seizures
  • Intracranial hemorrhage

If you experience these symptoms, it is important to consult with a neurosurgeon as soon as you can. He or she will discuss your symptoms with you and may order diagnostic tests to help reach a definitive diagnosis. Your doctor may use an MRI, CT scan, angiogram or other tests to visualize the blood vessels of your brain to determine if you have an AVM that is causing your symptoms.

Treating Arteriovenous Malformation

Some patients only learn of an AVM because a doctor has ordered diagnostic imaging for an unrelated condition. These patients are typically asymptomatic and may not require treatment right away. However, careful monitoring through follow-up visits and any recommended imaging will help ensure that any changes are noticed by your doctor right away.

If your doctor does recommend treatment, he or she will make recommendations based on the characteristics of your AVM and your personal health factors. Three treatment options available to patients in northern NJ are outlined below.

Traditional Surgery

Using traditional surgical methods, your neurosurgeon can correct your AVM by redirecting or removing the malformed blood vessels. The procedure will take place within a hospital while you are asleep and typically requires a hospital stay of a week or so. Patients who undergo traditional surgery will spend approximately 6 weeks recovering at home before returning to normal activity levels.

Embolization

Embolization is a less invasive procedure than traditional surgery. The neurosurgeon will make a small incision near the groin, then direct a catheter to the area of your AVM. Next, the neurosurgeon injects a synthetic material into the AVM, which will prevent blood from flowing through the vessels, reducing the risk of rupture. Embolization may be the only treatment your doctor recommends, or it may be used prior to traditional surgery.

Gamma Knife Radiosurgery

Despite its name, Gamma Knife radiosurgery does not involve a scalpel or any incisions. However, it can still be used to treat your AVM in a way similar to surgery but using a minimally invasive approach. Gamma Knife radiosurgery is an advanced form of radiation therapy that uses nearly 200 individual beams of low-dose radiation to treat the area of interest. The procedure is so accurate that your neurosurgeon can treat an area as small as 0.15 mm – the width of one human hair.

Gamma Knife radiosurgery takes place in an outpatient setting, meaning there is no hospital stay. Most patients are able to return to normal activities and work within a day or two, and the side effects are generally mild. Because of its minimally invasive nature, Gamma Knife radiosurgery can be an excellent treatment option for NJ patients who cannot undergo surgery, who have an AVM in a difficult-to-reach area or who simply prefer a shorter recovery time and no hospital stay.

Keep Asking Questions

As you learn more about your AVM, you may find you have new questions beyond “what is arteriovenous malformation?” Continue the discussion with your personal doctor, who will be able to relate the information here to your specific circumstances. He or she will be able to answer any remaining or new questions you have, ensuring you are comfortable with the treatment process along the way.

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