Vascular Rings Treatment & Management

Updated: Apr 22, 2021
  • Author: Shabir Bhimji, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: Jeffrey C Milliken, MD  more...
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Approach Considerations

Surgical division of a vascular ring is indicated in all symptomatic patients. To avoid serious complications such as sudden death or significant tracheal or bronchial damage, surgery should not be delayed, especially in patients with symptoms of airway compression.

Individuals who have no symptoms from a vascular ring may not require surgical intervention.

In patients with vague symptoms of difficulty swallowing, the presence of a left aortic arch with retroesophageal right subclavian artery should not be regarded as the definitive cause of the patient's symptoms. Although surgical division of an anomalous retroesophageal right subclavian artery for treatment of such symptoms was reported in older surgical literature, it was found to be ineffective because the majority of these patients continued to have symptoms. Currently, this anomaly is believed not to cause such symptoms, and further evaluation should therefore be pursued.

Cases of anomalous innominate artery with evidence of tracheal compression do not warrant surgical treatment if the patient has few or no symptoms. Only about 10% of these patients require surgery.

Video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) techniques have been used for some pediatric thoracic surgical procedures. Several centers have successfully employed this technology for patent ductus arteriosus ligation. Although some reported use of VATS for vascular ring division exists, [23, 24, 25]  this remains a controversial area. Most of the cases reported have been those in which an atretic arch or a ligamentum arteriosum was divided.

Use of this technology for division of a patent arch remains in question. The main objection to its use in such cases is the increased intraoperative risk of bleeding. The concern is that if vascular clips are applied to a patent arch and the arch is then divided, the amount of recoil of the divided ends that usually occurs may cause one of the clips to dislodge, resulting in severe hemorrhage.

Because of the constraints of video-assisted techniques, the surgeon may have difficulty ascertaining when complete occlusion of the arch by the vascular clips has occurred. Because present open techniques provide excellent operative results with extremely low mortality and low morbidity, minimally invasive methods will have to provide the same assurance of safety and efficacy to be applicable.


Medical Therapy

No medical therapy exists for the definitive treatment of vascular rings. Preoperatively, the patient should be given adequate nutritional support as well as general respiratory care and appropriate treatment of any respiratory tract infection. Surgery should not be delayed in the presence of a respiratory tract infection, because the division of the ring allows more adequate and complete clearing of respiratory secretions.


Surgical Therapy

Surgical division of symptomatic vascular rings is the only appropriate form of therapy. Surgery should be performed promptly after the diagnosis is made, especially in patients with stridor, apnea, or other symptoms of respiratory distress. Delay in operative intervention can result in complications of a serious nature.

The first video below illustrates slide tracheoplasty and left pulmonary artery sling repair in a 13-month-old patient. The second illustrates single-stage correction of transposition of the great arteries with ventricular septal defect, a hypoplastic right aortic arch with bilateral ductuses, and an aberrant left subclavian artery arising from the left duct in a newborn. 

Slide tracheoplasty and left pulmonary artery sling repair. Procedure performed by Giles Peek MD, FRCS, CTh, FFICM, The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, Bronx, NY.
Single-stage correction of transposition of great arteries with ventricular septal defect, hypoplastic right aortic arch with bilateral ductuses, and aberrant left subclavian artery arising from left duct in newborn. Procedure performed by Giles Peek MD, FRCS, CTh, FFICM, The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, Bronx, NY.

Preparation for surgery

In most cases, left thoracotomy is the surgical approach of choice for the division of a vascular ring. An anomalous left pulmonary artery has been corrected via the left thoracotomy approach in the past; however, the use of median sternotomy and cardiopulmonary bypass has been shown to yield better long-term results. The extremely rare configurations associated with left aortic arch and right descending thoracic aorta are the lesions that should be approached via a right thoracotomy for division of the ring.

Although a left thoracotomy can be used as the surgical approach for the vast majority of vascular rings, the surgeon must have exact delineation of the type of vascular ring present as well as associated tracheal or intracardiac abnormalities so that the proper surgical approach can be made.

Although a large percentage of vascular rings can be diagnosed with simple and inexpensive barium esophagography, additional studies should be performed if any question about the exact configuration of the abnormality exists before surgery.

Because the airway problems associated with vascular rings can cause the most severe complications, preoperative airway management is of paramount importance in these patients, especially those presenting with severe respiratory problems very early in life.

The infant with a vascular ring who requires preoperative intubation for respiratory distress should not be considered completely safe from airway complications simply because he or she is intubated. Small amounts of flexion or extension of the neck in these infants can change the position of the endotracheal tube in relation to the area of tracheal constriction, causing difficulties with ventilation and oxygenation. Endotracheal tube placement and patient ventilatory status must be carefully monitored in the operating room, especially during positioning for surgery.

Approaches to specific anomalies

Double aortic arch

The left chest is entered through the fourth intercostal space. The mediastinal pleura is opened, and the components of the vascular ring are visualized.

The right (posterior) arch need not be mobilized unless it is the lesser of the two arches and is to be divided. In such cases, the proximal descending aorta should be reflected anteriorly to visualize the area where the right arch enters.

In cases of double aortic arch, the nondominant, or smaller, arch is divided. If one arch is atretic, it is the obvious choice for division. A likely site for division of the minor, or atretic, arch is at its point of juncture with the descending aorta.

Division of the chosen arch should be performed between applied vascular clamps. Before the actual division, the strength of the right and left carotid and the radial pulses should be evaluated with the vascular clamps applied. Diminution or absence of the pulse in one or several of these areas indicates that division of the arch at the chosen location would result in interruption of blood flow to that area. In such cases, another site for division should be chosen.

Perfusion to the lower extremities should be assessed before division of one of two equal-sized patent arches.

The ends of the divided arch should be oversewn with fine, nonabsorbable vascular suture.

The ligamentum arteriosum and any other fibrous bands around the trachea or esophagus in that area should be divided as well.

The recurrent laryngeal and vagus nerves should be identified and avoided. Closure of the mediastinal pleura is not performed, so as not to foster the development of adhesive scarring in the already affected area of the trachea and esophagus.

Complete vascular ring with right aortic arch anatomy

In cases of complete vascular rings with right aortic arch anatomy, the primary structure to be divided is the ligamentum arteriosum.

After left thoracotomy, the anatomy should be dissected out and clearly visualized. The vagus and recurrent nerves should be visualized and preserved. The ligamentum is divided between vascular clamps and the ends oversewn. After ligamentum division, any associated fibrous or adhesive bands in the area are also divided.

In cases of right aortic arch with mirror-image branching and retroesophageal ligamentum arteriosum, a prominent or aneurysmal Kommerell diverticulum may be present. If so, it should be resected over a partially occluding vascular clamp and primarily oversewn or mobilized with the adjacent descending aorta so that it may be affixed to nearby vertebral fascia. If left alone, these diverticula can contribute to the compression on the trachea and esophagus.

A few authors have advocated division of the aberrant left subclavian artery in these cases as well, but the general view is that this is very rarely indicated for relief of the symptoms caused by the ring and may cause symptoms of subclavian steal later.

Ding et al, in a retrospective study of 48 children who had Kommerell diverticulum with right aortic arch and aberrant left subclavian artery, compared surgical treatment via left subclavian artery translocation (n = 26; median age, 12 months; median follow-up, 22 months) with treatment via aortopexy (n = 22; median age, 10 months; median follow-up, 14 months). [26] ​ They found that the two procedures relieved the pressure on the trachea and esophagus and had similar short-term outcomes, though the long-term outcomes remained unknown.

Anomalous left pulmonary artery

In the past, this abnormality was approached via either a right or a left thoracotomy. Presently, many centers utilize a median sternotomy approach with the aid of cardiopulmonary bypass. Others continue to report excellent results performing the corrective surgery via a left thoracotomy.

In cases using median sternotomy and bypass, aortic and single right atrial cannulation is employed. The infant is cooled to 32°C so that the normal cardiac rhythm is maintained.

The left pulmonary artery is identified at its junction with the right and is dissected out as far to the left as possible, with care taken to avoid injury to the membranous portion of the trachea. Its origin is often on the posterior surface of the right pulmonary artery and to the right of the trachea.

The pericardium is opened on the posterior left side near the site where the ligamentum arteriosum meets the pulmonary artery. The left pulmonary artery is identified in this area and freed from surrounding adhesions.

A partially occluding clamp is placed on the right pulmonary artery at the site of its junction with the left, which is then transected. The orifice left in the right pulmonary artery is closed primarily with fine interrupted polypropylene sutures.

The partial occluding clamp is released and replaced on the main pulmonary artery posteriorly where an arteriotomy is made. The location of the clamp on the main pulmonary artery is critical so that the left pulmonary artery is without deformity after the anastomosis.

The divided left pulmonary artery is brought through the path created for it behind the trachea and into the pericardium through the left-side pericardial opening. It is sewn to the arteriotomy with interrupted fine polypropylene sutures.

Tracheal anomalies associated with anomalous left pulmonary artery

As many as 50% of patients with aberrant left pulmonary artery may have the associated anomaly of complete tracheal rings. In these infants, the membranous portion of the trachea is congenitally absent. This abnormality results in tracheal stenosis or malacia and significantly adds to the morbidity of surgery.

The diagnosis of tracheal/bronchial malacia is made using rigid bronchoscopy.

The choice of repair depends upon the length of the trachea involved and may range from resection and end-to-end anastomosis in cases with short-segment involvement to a variety of tracheoplasty procedures in cases involving long-segment abnormalities.

When tracheal stenosis secondary to complete tracheal rings is found in association with an aberrant pulmonary artery, the two abnormalities may be repaired during the same operative procedure. The approach for this is median sternotomy, and cardiopulmonary bypass is used.

Congenital cardiac defects associated with anomalous left pulmonary artery

Intracardiac defects are commonly associated with an anomalous left pulmonary artery. Depending on the type of intracardiac pathology, the surgeon must use discretion in deciding whether to correct or palliate the cardiac defect at the same setting or to defer this until a later time.

Anomalous innominate artery

Tracheal compression from an aberrant innominate artery is most often approached via an anterolateral right thoracotomy. The right lobe of the thymus is removed, avoiding injury to the phrenic nerve. The pericardium immediately beneath this area is opened, and the innominate artery is identified near its junction with the aorta.

Treatment of this condition simply involves tacking the innominate artery to the posterior sternal surface. The innominate artery is affixed to the posterior periosteal layer of the sternum by using interrupted polypropylene sutures with pledgets. The sutures are each passed through the adventitia of the innominate artery and then through the periosteal layer of the sternum.

Usually, about three sutures are used and placed at intervals along the length of the artery, with the most proximal one placed at the junction of the innominate artery and the aorta. When these sutures are tied, the innominate artery is pulled away from the anterior surface of the trachea, relieving the compression.

Left aortic arch with right descending aorta lesions

These are extremely rare lesions, but they are the ones that must be approached via a right thoracotomy. Division of the ring in these cases is accomplished by dividing the right-side ligamentum arteriosum. Patients having this anomaly often have associated congenital cardiac defects and commonly receive extensive preoperative workup.

Operative details

When a thoracotomy is to be performed, a muscle-sparing incision is preferred.

In the thorax, it is important to delineate all of the anatomic features of the vascular ring before dividing the appropriate structure. In all cases, the phrenic, vagus, and recurrent laryngeal nerves should be identified and preserved intact.

Good communication between the surgeon and the anesthesiologist is essential during the operative procedure. This is especially true when vascular clamps are applied to a portion of an arch to be divided or to a ligamentum arteriosum prior to division.

The constricting effect of the vascular ring is temporarily increased by the placement of the clamps, and airway constriction may be transiently more severe. The surgeon should announce the time of clamp application, forewarning the anesthesiologist that oxygenation may worsen or ventilation may become more difficult. The anesthesiologist may then be able to compensate with other supportive measures.

Monitoring pulse oximetry and blood pressure in both upper extremities and one lower extremity is important in the case of a double aortic arch in which a patent arch is divided. These measurements help confirm the vascular anatomy and verify that no difference in blood pressure is produced when the arch to be divided is temporarily occluded.


Postoperative Care

Immediate postoperative management after division of a vascular ring is performed in an intensive care unit (ICU). The majority of patients can be extubated immediately or within a short time after the operation. Oxygen with high humidity should be administered, and chest physiotherapy should be provided as needed. For those infants with ongoing wheezing or stridor, nebulizer treatment is helpful. Pulse oximetry should be monitored.

About 10% of infants may continue to have noisy breathing for a while after the surgical procedure; it is important to inform the child's parents of this possibility. In some case, total relief of symptoms may take several months to 1 year. Many residual postoperative symptoms are related to the presence of some degree of malacotic change of the trachea or major bronchi at the site where the tightest constriction occurred. In the vast majority of cases, growth and appropriate stiffening of the tracheal cartilages take place.

Infants who must undergo tracheal reconstruction in addition to repair of a vascular ring have the trachea stented with an endotracheal tube for at least 1 week. When the infant is extubated, bronchoscopy is performed first to eliminate excess granulation tissue and any secretions present. Dilation may be performed at this time if necessary.



Serious surgical complications are rare in most reported surgical series of vascular ring division. Most complications associated with these problems occur in the preoperative setting and may even occur before the diagnosis is known. The majority of these are related to airway obstruction. Postoperatively, atelectases and pneumonias can and do occur. Pain from the thoracotomy incision can be long-lasting in some patients and can hamper breathing efforts.

Complications related to the surgical procedure itself are uncommon in most cases. Injury to the phrenic, vagus, or recurrent laryngeal nerve may occur. Disruption of the thoracic duct is also possible. Late vascular complications, such as subclavian steal, may be noted in cases where division of a brachiocephalic vessel, such as a retroesophageal subclavian artery, was deemed necessary.

Rare cases in which symptoms of airway obstruction persist may require resection of a severely malacotic segment of trachea or bronchus or a more complex tracheoplasty procedure.

One series reported two very rare cases in which a vascular ring that was originally identified as right arch with retroesophageal left subclavian artery and left ligamentum arteriosum was divided via a left thoracotomy with no postoperative improvement in symptoms. These patients were described as having a circumflex aorta in which it appeared that the posterior arch itself made up a portion of the obstructing ring.

Additional surgery was required in these patients. A second procedure was performed via median sternotomy with cardiopulmonary bypass support in which the posteriorly positioned aortic arch was divided at the point where it traveled around the right side of the trachea and esophagus. The divided leftward portion was brought anterior to the trachea and esophagus on the left and reanastomosed to the portion from which it was originally divided. Fortunately, such cases are extremely rare.


Long-Term Monitoring

Most patients are essentially asymptomatic within a few weeks after surgery and can resume activity and feedings as tolerated.

A small group continues to have some symptoms postoperatively; however, these findings are less prominent than those noted preoperatively in the majority of cases. These patients should show gradual improvement over 6-12 months, and most eventually become asymptomatic. This group may require closer follow-up in the immediate postoperative outpatient period so that early diagnosis and treatment of common forms of pediatric airway infections that result in epiglottitis or tracheobronchitis may be performed.

Patients who undergo more extensive surgery, especially tracheal reconstruction, require long-term follow-up. They may require bronchoscopy at regular intervals for elimination of encroaching granulation tissue and for tracheal or bronchial stenosis.

Patients who have associated congenital cardiac disease require regular follow-up with a pediatric cardiologist.