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Vertebral artery dissection: warning symptoms, clinical features and prognosis in 26 patients.

BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: Internal carotid artery dissection has been extensively studied and well-described. Although there has been a recent increase in the number of reported cases of vertebral artery (VA) dissection, the clinical variety of presentation and the early warning symptoms have not been well-described before. Our objectives in this study include: (1) To determine the early symptoms and warning signs which may help the clinician in the early identification and treatment of patients with VA dissection. (2) To explore the variety of clinical presentation of VA dissection and its relation to prognosis.

DESIGN AND SETTING: Retrospective analysis of hospital records in a tertiary academic centre for the period 1989-1999.

RESULTS: Twenty-six patients were identified (13 men and 13 women). The mean age was 48. Possible precipitating factors were identified in 14 patients (53%). Sporting activity and chiropractic manipulations were the most common (15% and 11% respectively). Headache and/or neck pain was the prominent feature in 88% of patients and was a warning sign in 53%, preceding onset of stroke by up to 14 days. The most common clinical features included vertigo (57%), unilateral facial paresthesia (46%), cerebellar signs (33%), lateral medullary signs (26%) and visual field defects (15%). Bilateral VA dissection presented in six patients (24%). The most common region of dissection was the C1-C2 level (16 arteries, 51%). Intracranial VA dissection was found in eight arteries (25%). The majority of patients (83%) had favorable outcome. Poor prognosis was associated with (1) bilateral dissection; (2) intracranial VA dissection accompanied by subarachnoid hemorrhage. Only two patients reported stroke recurrence.

CONCLUSIONS: Our findings show that VA dissection affects mainly middle age persons and involves both sexes equally. Headache and/or neck pain followed by vertigo or unilateral facial paresthesia is an important warning sign that may precede onset of stroke by several days. Although the majority of patients will have excellent prognosis, this was less likely in patients presenting with subarachnoid hemorrhage or bilateral VA dissection. Recurrence rate was low.

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