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Atherosclerosis in the vertebral artery: an intrinsic risk factor in the use of spinal manipulation?

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The presence of atherosclerotic plaques and their influence on the vertebral artery is of clinical importance within the scope of spinal manipulation. Manipulation may stimulate the development of atherosclerotic plaques, could detach an embolus with ensuing infarction, injure the endothelium or may directly cause a dissection in the presence of atherosclerotic plaques. In order to identify the sites and frequency of atherosclerotic plaques and to determine its relation to the tortuous course of the vertebral artery, a cadaveric study was performed. The vertebral arteries of 57 human cadavers were studied. The vertebral artery was virtually divided into four segments: the pre-vertebral (V1), the vertebral (V2), the atlanto-axial (V3), and the intracranial segment (V4). Abnormalities in the origin and course of the vertebral artery were noted, along with any associated osseous, or cartilaginous anomalies in the neck. After dissection, the artery was opened and macroscopically screened for the presence of atherosclerotic plaques. In 22.8% of the cases, no atherosclerotic plaques were present. In 35.1% of the cases, the atherosclerotic plaques were unilateral, of which 60.0% was on the left side, 40.0% on the right side, and in 42.1%, the occurrence was bilateral. Atherosclerotic plaques were significantly more present in the V3 segment than in the V1 (0.007) and V2 segment (0.049). In the V1 (P=0.008) and V2 segment (P=0.002), there was a correlation between a tortuous course of the vessel and the occurrence of atherosclerotic plaques. In individuals with marked atherosclerotic disease, stretching and compression effects of rotational manipulative techniques on atherosclerotic vessels impose a further risk factor for vertebrobasilar insufficiency. As direct evidence of atherosclerotic plaques are rarely available, therapists should avoid manipulative techniques at all levels of the cervical spine in the presence of any indirect sign of atherosclerotic disease or in the presence of calcified arterial walls or tortuosities of the vessels visible on routinely available X-ray images of the cervical or thoracic spine. It is strongly recommended, that if any doubt exists about the nature of a clinical presentation, vigorous manual procedures should be avoided until either the diagnosis is definitive or gentle manual therapy has proven effective.

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Correspondence to Barbara Cagnie.

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Cagnie, B., Barbaix, E., Vinck, E. et al. Atherosclerosis in the vertebral artery: an intrinsic risk factor in the use of spinal manipulation?. Surg Radiol Anat 28, 129–134 (2006).

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