What is a Cavernous Malformation?
A cavernous malformation (also known as Cav Mal) is a cluster of dilated blood vessels (capillaries) with an enlarged and irregular structure. The walls of these capillaries are thinner than normal, have loose junctions between cells, and are prone to leaking.
These abnormalities can occur anywhere in the body, but they are most likely to produce symptoms when they form in the brain or spinal cord. Cavernous malformations cause neurological symptoms when they bleed into the brain (hemorrhage).
How common are cavernous malformations?
About one person in every 100 to 200 people has a cavernous malformation, but about 25 percent of people affected never have symptoms.
Who gets cavernous malformations?
Cavernous malformations can affect children and adults. Most people who have symptoms are between 20 and 50 years old.
Most cavernous malformations occur sporadically, but some cases are hereditary.
How are cavernous malformations diagnosed?
Your doctor may be able to diagnose a cavernous malformation with an MRI alone because they have a unique appearance on these images. Other possible tests that your doctor might order include:
- CT scan
- Blood tests
- Genetic testing
Are cavernous malformations life-threatening?
A cavernous malformation is usually not life-threatening, but repeated bleeds may cause permanent neurological deficits. Lesions in sensitive tissue like the brain stem and thalamus can be extremely disabling if they bleed.
Do cavernous malformations go away?
Cavernous malformations do not go away without surgical removal. However, they may go dormant and stop bleeding. It is difficult to predict which cavernous malformations will bleed again and when.
Is a cavernous malformation a tumor?
Cavernous malformations are better described as abnormally formed blood vessels. They are not tumors in the sense of multiplying cells and growing tissue. They do not spread to other parts of the body and infiltrate organs like cancerous tumors.
Are cavernous malformations hereditary?
Most cavernous malformations occur spontaneously, meaning there is no known family history of the disease. However, 15 percent of cavernous malformations are caused by inherited genetic mutations.
Symptoms of Cavernous Malformation
When a cavernous malformation leaks, bleeding can be slow and intermittent or rapid, causing sudden symptom onset. Most people who develop neurological deficits after a hemorrhage from a cavernous malformation improve dramatically over time. However, repeated hemorrhages may result in permanent deficits.
Symptoms of a cavernous malformation may include:
- Bleeding in the brain (hemorrhage)
- Hearing or vision changes
- Weakness, numbness, or paralysis
- Memory deficits
- Speech impairment
Treatments for Cavernous Malformation
If you are diagnosed with a cavernous malformation but are not experiencing symptoms, your doctor may recommend observing it over time with regular MRI scans.
Medications, such as anti-epileptic drugs, may be prescribed to control your seizures or other symptoms.
If your symptoms are not responding to medication or there is repeated bleeding in the brain, surgical removal of the cavernous malformation may be recommended.
- Reviewed by: Michael T. Lawton, MD
- Date of last review: January 21, 2020