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Extracranial and intracranial vertebrobasilar dissections: diagnosis and prognosis.

OBJECTIVES: To compare the diagnosis and prognosis of extracranial versus intracranial vertebral artery dissections without intracerebral haemorrhage.

METHODS: Twenty two vertebral artery dissections were defined by intra-arterial angiography and classified in two groups: group 1, nine extracranial dissections (seven patients) and group 2, 13 intracranial dissections (nine patients), involving the basilar artery in five cases. Bilateral dissections were found in 38% of the population. Before angiography, all the patients had been investigated by continuous wave Doppler, colour coded Doppler, and transcranial Doppler. Mean follow up was 44 months.

RESULTS: The two most important symptoms of both dissections (81% of patients) were unbearable pain preceding stroke and progressive onset of stroke within a few hours. Severe ultrasonic abnormalities were present in 94% of the patients whereas specific ultrasonic signs (segmental dilation with eccentric channel) were rare (19%) in both groups. Major strokes and brainstem strokes represented respectively 67% and 78% in intracranial versus 43% and 29% in extracranial dissections. Severe sequelae (permanent disabling motor or cerebellar deficit) were more often associated with intracranial (44%) than with extracranial dissections (14%). No recurrence of dissection and no cerebral haemorrhage were found under heparin. Significant factors of poor outcome (P< 0.05) were the initial severity of the stroke and the bilateral location of dissections.

CONCLUSION: The combination of a pain and a progressive onset of the stroke, corroborated by ultrasonic findings, could have helped to recognise most of these types of dissections. Intracranial dissections have a poorer prognosis than extracranial dissections.

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