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What are arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) of the head and neck?

Arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) of the head and neck are defects of the blood vessels. Blood vessels present themselves as a tangled mass of arteries and veins. AVMs lack the capillary bed that normally exists in the common area where the arteries and veins lie in close proximity. AVMs can occur anywhere in the body and have been found in the arms, hands, legs, feet, lungs, heart, liver and kidneys. Half of all AVMs are located in the brain, brain stem and spinal cord. Because of the possibility of a hemorrhage, AVMs carry the risk of stroke, paralysis and the loss of speech, memory or vision. AVMs that hemorrhage can be fatal.

Symptoms

Most people with brain AVMs experience few or no symptoms. When symptoms of arteriovenous malformations present themselves, they can include:

  • Headache and weakness
  • Pain
  • Problems with speech, vision and movement
  • Seizure

Risk factors

The cause of AVMs of the head and neck are unknown. However, most develop during fetal development, and there are certain risk factors that include:

  • Gender (AVMs happen more frequently in males)
  • Family history (there may be a genetic factor in vascular malformations, including AVMs)

Types of treatment

Our multidisciplinary team is experts at several treatment options for AVMs. Your care team will determine the best treatment based on several factors. Potential treatments include:

  • Lifestyle changes—If you have few or no symptoms or if your AVM is in a location that isn’t easily treated, conservative medical treatment may be recommended. This may include avoiding activities that elevate blood pressure and avoiding blood thinners.
  • Surgery—In some cases, surgical removal is the best option to completely remove the AVM. This prevents the chance of future bleeding.
  • Stereotactic radiosurgery—In relatively small AVMs, a cerebral angiogram is done to pinpoint the AVM. Focused beam high energy is used to damage blood vessels to cause them to scar and clot the AVM.
  • Interventional neuroradiology—A small catheter is placed inside the blood vessel that supplies the AVM to block the flow of blood. Liquid tissue adhesives, micro coils, particles and other materials can be placed through the catheter to stop blood flowing to the AVM.
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