Rotational vertebral artery syndrome, or colloquially "bow hunter syndrome," is a rare cause of vertebrobasilar insufficiency. In patients with Bow Hunter Syndrome, rotation of the head and neck can lead to compression of the vertebral artery at the atlantoaxial or subaxial levels in the spine. The name "bow hunter syndrome" is derived from a patient who developed Wallenberg syndrome (a lateral medullary infarction) during archery practice due to poor circulation with his head turned for extended periods.
Understanding the anatomy of the vertebral artery is critical to the pathogenesis of bow hunter syndrome. The vertebral arteries originate from the subclavian arteries. They generally enter deep into the transverse process of C6 in most cases (C7 in 7.5% of cases) and ascend through the transverse foramen of each cervical vertebrae. After ascending through the transverse foramen of the atlas (C1), the vertebral arteries travel along the posterior arch of C1 and into the suboccipital triangle where they enter the foramen magnum.
Because of the vertebral arteries complex course along the posterior arch of the atlas (C1), it is susceptible to compression and occlusion due to rotation of the head. Disk herniation, osteophytes, spondylotic changes, vertebral artery dissection, cervical spondylosis, and any other anatomical or surgical derangements in the cervical-occipital region may result in vertebral artery occlusion. Osteophytes and bone spurs are the most common causes of occlusion.
Rotational vertebral artery syndrome usually presents in patients aged 50 to 79, with a predilection for men at a ratio of approximately 2 to 1. Old age, hypertension, osteoarthritis, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, smoking, and coronary artery disease are other risk factors found to be associated with its diagnosis.
The clinical presentation of rotational vertebral artery syndrome varies from patient to patient. Typically, they will have a history ranging from transient ischemic attacks to devastating strokes of the posterior circulation that are evoked by head rotation and generally resolve with derotation of the neck. Most commonly, patients report dizziness, syncope, impaired vision/nystagmus, nausea, Horner syndrome, and other motor and sensory deficits that occur with head rotation. Unfortunately, the reported clinical findings most common are not specific to bow hunter's syndrome but rather are commonplace in disorders of the neuro vestibular system.
Patients with suspected a suspected vascular disorder affecting the vertebrobasilar system should undergo CTA or MRI/MRA to assess for abnormal bony structures, infarction lesions, and vertebral artery stenosis. Diagnostic confirmation is digital subtraction angiography, which in true bow hunter's syndrome, will show normal arteries in neutral head alignment and stenotic arteries or vascular occlusion with head rotation. These vascular studies are considered the gold standard in confirming the diagnosis of bow hunter's syndrome. Furthermore, electrophysiologic exams such as motor evoked potentials, SSEPs, and brain stem auditory evoked response serve as baseline information preceding and following surgical intervention.
Rotational vertebral artery syndrome is rare, and there is not one single consensus on the best course of treatment. Conservative management with avoidance of head and neck rotation using a brace or collar is one option, while adjunct anticoagulation therapy may improve morbidity.
Most patients are offered conservative treatment initially and undergo surgical intervention if symptoms fail to improve. Decompression and fusion of the cervical spine, generally at C1-C2 or occiput-C2, may be employed.
Cornelius et al. described a case of bow hunter's syndrome caused by dynamic vertebral artery stenosis. The patient in question had a history of focal dissection, and after failing conservative management, he received treatment with coil embolization of his right vertebral artery. As there are many potential causes of dynamic vertebral artery compression, surgical treatment is targeted to each patient's specific pathology and are not standardizable across all patients.
Rotational vertebral artery syndrome presents with nonspecific symptoms consistent with vertebrobasilar deficiency. Most commonly, patients report dizziness, syncope, impaired vision/nystagmus, nausea, Horner syndrome, and other motor and sensory deficits that occur with head rotation. Patients often present with symptoms of transient ischemic attacks and strokes, which can have a plethora of underlying causes.
As mentioned briefly above, bow hunter syndrome was initially described in a patient who developed symptoms analogous to lateral medullary syndrome, normally caused by an infarct of the vertebral artery or the posterior inferior cerebellar artery. Lateral medullary syndrome, or Wallenberg syndrome, is characterized by ipsilateral pain and temperature sensation loss in the face and contralateral loss of pain and temperature sensation in the body accompanied by gait ataxia/vertigo, nystagmus, nausea/vomiting, and dysphagia.
Choi et al. reported that of 19 patients with rotational vertebral artery syndrome managed conservatively, no patient developed a posterior circulation stroke over 37.5 months of follow-up. Furthermore, four patients had resolution of symptoms during the follow-up period.
Conversely, a review by Rastogi et al. reported only a 37% favorable outcome incidence for patients managed conservatively.
Repeated transient ischemic attacks and strokes of the vestibular system can result in decreased balance, syncope, dizziness, and long-term neurological deficits. Furthermore, falls associated with these attacks can result in other injuries. Patients who require cervical fusion lose significant motion in the neck, with the atlantoaxial joint being responsible for 55% of rotation and 15% of flexion and extension.
Patients who note episodes of dizziness, syncope, nausea, loss of balance, and other neurological symptoms accompanying rotation of the head should be evaluated for rotational vertebral artery syndrome by a medical professional as symptoms are nonspecific and could indicate numerous different pathologies. For patients diagnosed with bow hunter syndrome, they can usually be managed non-operatively with neck immobilization and anticoagulation. Still, they should undergo careful monitoring under the supervision of a medical specialist.
Rotational vertebral artery syndrome is a treatable condition that can have significant morbidity if not managed appropriately. Furthermore, it represents a diagnostic challenge as there are many causes of vertebral basilar deficiency and other pathologies that may mimic its symptoms. Therefore, practitioners whose patients exhibit symptoms of cerebellar ischemia should be sent for evaluation by a specialist in neurology to obtain a correct diagnosis. Neurosurgeons, vascular surgeons, and/or orthopedic spine surgeons can all play a role in the surgical management of rotational vertebral artery syndrome if a patient fails non-operative management.
Nurses and medical support staff must work together and communicate clearly between medical team members to execute the plan of management to optimize patient outcomes. As the consequences of mismanagement of bow hunter syndrome can be severe, medical professionals must be both educated and prepared to provide the highest quality of patient care.
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