Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome

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Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome
Other names: Call-Fleming syndrome, postpartum cerebral angiopathy, benign angiopathy of the central nervous system, migrainous vasospasm, migraine angiitis[1]
Significant beading of all intracranial arteries, best demonstrated in the anterior cerebral arties due to RCVS.
SymptomsRecurrent and severe headaches, vomiting, sensivity to light, confusion, focal neurologic signs, seizures[2][1]
ComplicationsSubarachnoid hemorrhage, stroke[1]
Usual onset20 to 50 years old[1]
Duration3 weeks[2]
Risk factorsChildbirth, vasoactive drugs, complications of pregnancy[2]
Diagnostic methodMedical imaging[1]
Differential diagnosisSubarachnoid hemorrhage due to an aneurysm, cerebral artery dissection, cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, ischemic stroke, pituitary apoplexy, cerebral vasculitis[2][1]
TreatmentCalcium channel blockers[1]
PrognosisGenerally favorable[1]
FrequencyRelatively common[1]

Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS) is a disease characterized by many areas of constriction and dilation of arteries around the brain.[1] Symptoms typically include recurrent and severe headaches of sudden onset (thunderclap headaches).[1] Other symptoms may include vomiting, sensivity to light, confusion, focal neurologic signs, and seizures.[2][1] Complications may include subarachnoid bleeding and stroke.[1]

Risk factors include childbirth, vasoactive drugs, and complications of pregnancy.[2] Drugs that have been implicated include cocaine, sumatriptan, diet pills, SSRIs, and pseudoephedrine.[2][1] Diagnosis is generally by medical imaging.[1] Other conditions that may present similarly include subarachnoid bleeding due to an aneurysm, cerebral artery dissection, cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, ischemic stroke, pituitary apoplexy, and cerebral vasculitis.[2][1]

Calcium channel blockers, such as nimodipine, have been used for treatment.[1] For the vast majority, all symptoms disappear on their own within three weeks.[2] Deficits persist in a minority, with severe complications or death being very rare.[2]

While how often it occurs is unknown, it is believed to be relatively common.[1] Those affected are most often 20 to 50 years old.[1] Females are affected more often than males.[1] The condition was first described in the 1960s; however, the current name did not come into use until 2007.[3]

Signs and symptoms

The key symptom of RCVS is recurrent thunderclap headaches, which occurs in over 95%.[2] In two-thirds of cases, it is the only symptom.[2] These headaches are typically bilateral, very severe and peak in intensity within a minute.[2] They may last from minutes to days, and may be accompanied by nausea, photophobia, phonophobia or vomiting.[2] Some people experience only one headache, but on average there are four attacks over a period of one to four weeks.[2] A milder, residual headache persists between severe attacks for half of people.[2]

About 1–17% of people experience seizures; 8–43% of people show neurologic problems, especially visual disturbances, but also hemiplegia, ataxia, dysarthria, aphasia, and numbness.[2] These neurologic issues typically disappear within minutes or a few hours; more persistent symptoms may indicate a stroke.[2] Posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome is present in a small minority of people.[4][5][6]

This condition features the unique property that the person's cerebral arteries can spontaneously constrict and relax back and forth over a period of time without intervention and without clinical findings. Vasospasm is common post subarachnoid hemorrhage and cerebral aneurysm, but in RCVS only 25% of people have symptoms post subarachnoid hemorrhage.[7]


The direct cause of the symptoms is believed to be either constriction or dilation of blood vessels in the brain.[2] The pathogenesis is not known definitively, and the condition is likely to result from multiple different disease processes.[3]

Up to two-thirds of RCVS cases are associated with an underlying condition or exposure, particularly vasoactive or recreational drug use, complications of pregnancy (eclampsia and pre-eclampsia), and the adjustment period following childbirth called puerperium.[2] Vasoactive drug use is found in about 50% of cases.[3] Implicated drugs include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, weight-loss pills such as Hydroxycut, alpha-sympathomimetic decongestants, acute migraine medications, pseudoephedrine, epinephrine, cocaine, and cannabis, among many others.[2] It sometimes follows blood transfusions, certain surgical procedures, swimming, bathing, high altitude experiences, sexual activity, exercise, or coughing.[2] Symptoms can take days or a few months to manifest after a trigger.[3]

Following a study and publication in 2007, it is also thought SSRIs, uncontrolled hypertension, endocrine abnormality, and neurosurgical trauma are indicated to potentially cause vasospasm.[8]


Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome a) Multifocal vasoconstriction b) anterior, middle, and posterior cerebral arteries c)follow-up indicated significant interval resolution of lesion d) linear hyperintensity lesions in the sulci of frontal lobes

Other conditions with similar symptoms should first be ruled out, such as subarachnoid hemorrhage, ischemic stroke, pituitary apoplexy, cerebral artery dissection, meningitis, and spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak.[2] This may involve a CT scan, lumbar puncture, MRI, and other tests.[2] Posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome has a similar presentation, and is found in 10–38% of people.[2]

RCVS is diagnosed by detecting diffuse reversible cerebral vasoconstriction.[2] Catheter angiography is ideal, but computed tomography angiography and magnetic resonance angiography can identify about 70% of cases.[2] Multiple angiographies may be necessary.[2] Because other diseases (such as atherosclerosis) have similar angiographic presentations, it can only be conclusively diagnosed if vasoconstriction resolves within 12 weeks.[2]


As of 2014, no treatment strategy has yet been investigated in a randomized clinical trial.[2] Verapamil, nimodipine, and other calcium channel blockers may help reduce the intensity and frequency of the headaches.[2] A clinician may recommend rest and the avoidance of activities or vasoactive drugs which trigger symptoms (see § Causes).[2] Analgesics and anticonvulsants can help manage pain and seizures, respectively.[2]


All symptoms normally resolve within three weeks, and may only last days.[2] Permanent deficits are seen in a minority of people, ranging from under 10% to 20% in various studies.[2] Less than 5% of people experience progressive vasoconstriction, which can lead to stroke, progressive cerebral edema, or even death.[2] Severe complications appear to be more common in postpartum mothers.[3]


The incidence of RCVS is unknown, but it is believed to be "not uncommon", and likely under-diagnosed.[2][3] One small, possibly biased study found that the condition was eventually diagnosed in 45% of outpatients with sudden headache, and 46% of outpatients with thunderclap headache.[2]

The average age of onset is 42, but RCVS has been observed in those aged from 19 months to 70 years.[2] Children are rarely affected.[2] It is more common in females, with a female-to-male ratio of 2.4:1.[3]


Case studies of the condition first appeared in the 1960s, but it was not then recognized as a distinct entity.[3] In 1983, French researchers published a case series of 11 people, terming the condition acute benign cerebral angiopathy.[2] Gregory Call and Marie Fleming were the first two authors of a report in which doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital, led by C. Miller Fisher, described 4 people, alongside 12 previous case studies, with the characteristic symptoms and abnormal cerebral angiogram findings.[3][9] The name Call-Fleming syndrome refers to these researchers.[2]

A 2007 review by Leonard Calabrese and colleagues proposed the name reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome, which has since gained widespread acceptance.[2][10] This name merges various conditions that were previously treated as distinct entities, including Call-Fleming syndrome, postpartum angiopathy, and drug-induced angiopathy.[3] Other names may still be used for particular forms of the condition.[2]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 Nesheiwat, O; Al-Khoury, L (January 2021). "Reversible Cerebral Vasoconstriction Syndromes". PMID 31869187. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 2.23 2.24 2.25 2.26 2.27 2.28 2.29 2.30 2.31 2.32 2.33 2.34 2.35 2.36 2.37 2.38 2.39 2.40 2.41 2.42 2.43 Mehdi, A. & Hajj-Ali, R. A. (2014). "Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome: a comprehensive update". Current Pain and Headache Reports. 18 (9): 1–10. doi:10.1007/s11916-014-0443-2. PMID 25138149. S2CID 7457809.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Miller, T. R.; Shivashankar, R.; Mossa-Basha, M. & Gandhi, D. (2015). "Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome, part 1: epidemiology, pathogenesis, and clinical course" (PDF). American Journal of Neuroradiology. 36 (8): 1392–1399. doi:10.3174/ajnr.A4214. PMID 25593203. S2CID 12431927. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2016-06-15. Retrieved 2015-04-23.
  4. Chen, Shih-Pin; Fuh, Jong-Ling; Wang, Shuu-Jiun (2010). "Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome: an under-recognized clinical emergency". Ther Adv Neurol Disord. 3 (3): 161–171. doi:10.1177/1756285610361795. PMC 3002654. PMID 21179608.
  5. Miller TR, Shivashankar R, Mossa-Basha M, and Gandhi D (2015). "Reversible Cerebral Vasoconstriction Syndrome, Part 1 Epidemiology, Pathogenesis, and Clinical Course" (PDF). American Journal of Neuroradiology. 36 (8): 1392–9. doi:10.3174/ajnr.A4214. PMID 25593203. S2CID 12431927. Archived from the original on 2020-02-20. Retrieved 2010-08-29.
  6. Ducros A (2012). "Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome" (PDF). The Lancet Neurology. 11 (10): 906–17. doi:10.1016/s1474-4422(12)70135-7. PMID 22995694. S2CID 13616987. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2020-01-26. Retrieved 2015-11-27.
  7. Moustafa RR, Allen CM, Baron JC (2008). "Call-Fleming syndrome associated with subarachnoid haemorrhage: three new cases". Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. 79 (5): 602–5. doi:10.1136/jnnp.2007.134635. PMC 3029638. PMID 18077478. S2CID 36857208.
  8. Calabrese LH, Dodick DW, Schwedt TJ, Singhal AB (January 2007). "Narrative review: reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndromes". Ann. Intern. Med. 146 (1): 34–44. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-146-1-200701020-00007. PMID 17200220. S2CID 8628852.
  9. Call GK, Fleming MC, Sealfon S, Levine H, Kistler JP, Fisher CM (1988). "Reversible cerebral segmental vasoconstriction". Stroke. 19 (9): 1159–70. doi:10.1161/01.str.19.9.1159. PMID 3046073.
  10. Calabrese LH, Dodick DW, Schwedt TJ, Singhal AB (2007). "Narrative review: reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndromes". Annals of Internal Medicine. 146 (1): 34–44. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-146-1-200701020-00007. PMID 17200220. S2CID 8628852.

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