Vertebrobasilar Insufficiency

Vertebrobasilar insufficiency (VBI) is reduced or stopped blood flow to the back of your brain. Hardening of your arteries (atherosclerosis) often causes this condition. VBI impacts your balance and movement, as well as increases your risk of stroke and other health issues. Treatments for VBI include lifestyle changes, medication and surgery.


What is vertebrobasilar insufficiency?

Vertebrobasilar insufficiency (VBI) is when blood flow to the back of your brain reduces or stops. VBI affects the parts of your brain that control balance and movement.

Many people with VBI have only minor health problems. But VBI puts you at higher risk for a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA, or mini stroke). This condition can also sometimes cause serious disability and death.

Healthcare providers often treat vertebrobasilar insufficiency with lifestyle changes and medications. You may need surgery if you continue having symptoms despite these interventions.


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Are there different types of vertebrobasilar insufficiency?

Transient vertebrobasilar insufficiency is a rare form of VBI caused by turning or rotating your head. Healthcare providers also call this condition:

  • Bow hunter syndrome.
  • Head turning syncope.
  • Rotational vertebrobasilar insufficiency.

Who might get vertebrobasilar insufficiency?

You’re at higher risk of VBI if you’re over age 50 and have:

Heart conditions that can cause a blocked artery (cardioembolic conditions) also raise your risk of VBI. These conditions include:

Men have twice the risk of VBI when compared to women. Black Americans also have a higher risk than other ethnic groups.


How common is vertebrobasilar insufficiency?

As many as 25% of people over age 70 may have VBI.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes vertebrobasilar insufficiency?

A hardening of your arteries (atherosclerosis) commonly causes VBI. Atherosclerosis occurs when plaque formed from cholesterol and calcium builds up in your arteries. This plaque causes your arteries to narrow and reduces blood flow.

Other common VBI causes include:

  • Penetrating artery disease (when small arteries in your brain become blocked).
  • Pulmonary embolism.
  • Vertebral artery dissection.

Less common causes of VBI include:


What are the symptoms of vertebrobasilar insufficiency?

Symptoms of VBI may include:

Diagnosis and Tests

How is vertebrobasilar insufficiency diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and give you a physical exam. They may suggest other tests, including:

  • Imaging tests: A CT (computed tomography) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) takes pictures of the blood vessels at the back of your brain.
  • Angiography: Your healthcare provider will use angiography to take X-ray pictures of your arteries.
  • Computed tomography angiography (CTA) or magnetic resonance angiography (MRA): A CTA or MRA makes high-resolution, 3D pictures of your blood vessels.
  • Echocardiogram: An echocardiogram (also called an echo) uses an ultrasound to assess sound waves, which create images of your heart’s chambers and valves. This test examines your heart’s pumping action.
  • Electrocardiogram: An electrocardiogram (also called an ECG or EKG) measures the electrical activity of your heart.
  • Holter monitor: A Holter monitor records your heart’s electrical activity for 24 to 48 hours while you do your daily activities.
  • Prothrombin time (PT) and partial thromboplastin tine (PTT) blood tests: The PT test and PTT test measure the time it takes for your blood to clot.

Management and Treatment

How is vertebrobasilar insufficiency treated?

Your healthcare provider may suggest lifestyle changes to help reduce your VBI symptoms. These changes may include:

Your healthcare provider may also recommend medications to help manage health issues. These may include medications to control:

If lifestyle changes and medications don’t help your blood flow, your healthcare provider may suggest surgery. Surgery to treat VBI includes:

How is transient vertebrobasilar insufficiency treated?

Healthcare providers may treat transient vertebrobasilar insufficiency with:


How can I reduce my risk of vertebrobasilar insufficiency?

You can reduce your risk of vertebrobasilar insufficiency if you:

  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Keep your cholesterol under control.
  • Manage other health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes by following your healthcare providers’ instructions.
  • Quit smoking.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the outlook if I have vertebrobasilar insufficiency?

The prognosis for VBI depends on:

  • Severity of your brain function issues (neurological deficit).
  • Whether you’ve had a stroke.
  • Your age.
  • Your other health issues.

Serious cases of VBI may lead to disability and death.

Are there long-term effects from vertebrobasilar insufficiency?

Most people with mild symptoms are able to manage symptoms with lifestyle changes and medication. If you have severe symptoms, you may need rehabilitation for months to years.

Problems that can result from VBI include:

Does vertebrobasilar insufficiency return after treatment?

VBI has a recurrence rate of 10% to 15%.

Living With

How do I take care of myself with vertebrobasilar insufficiency?

You can take care of yourself by learning skills to aid in your recovery. You may need help with:

  • Bladder and bowel training.
  • Nutrition.
  • Safety around your home.
  • Teaching you how to perform day-to-day activities.

Types of therapy that can benefit you include:

  • Occupational therapy.
  • Physical therapy.
  • Speech therapy.

You may also need help from a home care nurse who can check on your recovery.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Vertebrobasilar insufficiency (VBI) occurs when blood flow to the back of your brain lessens or ends. This part of your brain controls movement and balance, so VBI can lead to difficulty swallowing, dizziness and numbness. Hardening of your arteries (atherosclerosis) usually causes VBI. Lifestyle changes and medications can often help control your symptoms. Your healthcare provider may suggest surgery if your symptoms continue. Occupational, physical and speech therapy can also help improve your day-to-day life.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 03/01/2022.

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