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Your circulatory system consists of your heart and blood vessels. There are three types of blood vessels in the circulatory system: veins, capillaries, and arteries. Arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) are defects in the blood vessels of the circulatory system.
A malformation is an abnormal connection between the veins and arteries. This interferes with your body’s ability to circulate blood. It’s usually congenital, which means the condition is present at birth. Although malformations can begin anywhere in your body, some develop in the brain and spinal cord region, causing seizures and headaches.
What causes AVMs is unknown. Some doctors believe they occur in the womb or shortly after birth and appear later as the child ages.
Children born with an AVM condition may have a bluish tint to their skin. This is due to the absence of oxygenated blood circulating through the body. The skin tends to darken to a deep red or purple as children age and the condition worsens.
There are certain genetic syndromes that can put you at increased risk of having AVMs, such as hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia or Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome. There have been rare reports of AVMs in several family members, though it’s unclear if this is genetic or coincidental.
The symptoms of AVM vary, depending on:
You may not have significant symptoms if you have an AVM in the brain. In some cases, brain AVMs cause headaches or seizures. Unfortunately, due to lack of symptoms, this type of AVM often goes undiagnosed or unnoticed until it presents life-threatening symptoms.
Common symptoms of brain AVMs include:
If the AVM is elsewhere in the body, the symptoms may be more pronounced.
Common symptoms for AVMs found in the limbs and spinal cord include:
Common symptoms for AVMs found in the organs, chest, or abdomen include:
Some symptoms in children under age 2 include:
Your doctor will perform a physical examination and several tests to confirm an AVM. It’s important to rule out other health problems that can mimic the symptoms of AVMs.
Imaging tools used to diagnose AVMs include:
Your treatment plan will depend on your age, condition, and physical health. The most important goal is to prevent internal bleeding, which can lead to stroke or death.
Your doctor might prescribe medications even though they don't cure AVMs. Medications control pain and seizures.
Surgery to repair or remove damaged blood vessels is an option. The type of surgery you’ll need depends on your type of AVM. There are three options:
Endovascular embolization is used for arteriovenous malformations deep in the brain or spinal cord tissue. In this procedure, a thin, flexible tube called a catheter is guided to the AVM to close up the abnormal connection. It doesn’t repair the AVM, but it reduces blood flow to it and makes surgery safer.
Radiosurgery involves using a highly concentrated beam of radiation and focusing it directly on the site of the AVM. The radiation damages the blood vessel walls and creates scar tissue, which will eventually stop flow of blood into the AVM.
AVMs can’t be prevented. However, you can manage and treat symptoms with proper medical care. Taking prescribed medications can help avoid bleeding problems, pain, and other complications.
Managing high blood pressure, avoiding medications that thin the blood, and keeping regular appointments with a neurologist can also help monitor your condition and prevent complications.
Written by: Brindles Lee Macon and Winnie Yu
Medically reviewed on: Mar 31, 2017: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine
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