Vascular ring is an abnormal formation of the aorta, the large artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. It is a congenital problem, which means it is present at birth.
Right aortic arch with aberrant subclavian and left ligamentum ateriosus; Congenital heart defect - vascular ring; Birth defect heart - vascular ring
Vascular ring is rare. It accounts for less than 1% of all congenital heart problems. The condition occurs as often in males as females. Some infants with vascular ring also have another congenital heart problem.
Vascular ring occurs very early in the baby's development in the womb. Normally, the aorta develops from one of several curved pieces of tissue (arches). The body breaks down some of the remaining arches, while others form into arteries. Some arteries that should break down do not, which forms a vascular ring.
With vascular ring, some of the arches and vessels that should have changed into arteries or disappeared are still present when the baby is born. These arches form a ring of blood vessels, which encircles and presses down on the windpipe (trachea) and esophagus.
Several different types of vascular ring exist. In some types, the vascular ring only partially encircles the trachea and esophagus, but it still can cause symptoms.
Some children with a vascular ring never develop symptoms. However, in most cases, symptoms are seen during infancy. Pressure on the windpipe (trachea) and esophagus can lead to breathing and digestive problems. The more the ring presses down, the more severe the symptoms will be.
Breathing problems may include:
- High-pitched cough
- Loud breathing (stridor)
- Repeated pneumonias or respiratory infections
- Respiratory distress
Eating may make breathing symptoms worse.
Digestive symptoms are rare, but may include:
- Difficulty eating solid foods
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
- Slow breast or bottle feeding
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will listen to the baby's breathing to rule out other breathing disorders such as asthma. Listening to the child's heart through a stethoscope can help identify murmurs and other heart problems.
The following tests can help diagnose vascular ring:
- Chest x-ray
- Computed tomography (CT) scan of the heart and major blood vessels
- Camera down the throat to examine the airways (bronchoscopy)
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the heart and major blood vessels
- Ultrasound examination (echocardiogram) of heart
- X-ray of blood vessels (angiography)
- X-ray of the esophagus using a special dye to better highlight the area (esophagram or barium swallow)
Surgery is usually performed as soon as possible on children with symptoms. The goal of surgery is to split the vascular ring and relieve pressure on the surrounding structures. The procedure is usually done through a small surgical cut in the left side of the chest between the ribs.
Changing the child's diet may help relieve the digestive symptoms of vascular ring. The provider will prescribe medications (such as antibiotics) to treat any respiratory tract infections, if they occur.
Children who do not have symptoms may not need treatment, but should be carefully watched to make sure the condition does not become worse.
How well the infant does depends on how much pressure the vascular ring is putting on the esophagus and trachea and how quickly the infant is diagnosed and treated.
Surgery works well in most cases and often relieves symptoms right away. Severe breathing problems may take months to go away. Some children may continue to have loud breathing, especially when they are very active or have respiratory infections.
Delaying surgery in serious cases can lead to serious complications, such as damage to the trachea and death.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if your baby has symptoms of vascular ring. Getting diagnosed and treated quickly can prevent serious complications.
There is no known way to prevent this condition.
Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF. Other congenital heart and vascular malformations. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 432.
Park MK. Vascular ring. In: Park MK, ed. Park's Pediatric Cardiology for Practitioners. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 16.
Webb GD, Smallhorn JF, Therrien J, Redington AN. Congenital heart disease in the adult and pediatric patient. In: Zipes DP, Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Tomaselli GF, Braunwald E, eds. Braunwald’s Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 75.
Reviewed By: Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.