Aortic Aneurysm

What is an aortic aneurysm?

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An aortic aneurysm is when the aortic wall enlarges, creating a bulge or balloon. The aorta is the large artery that carries blood from the heart, through the chest, and eventually through the torso. When an aortic aneurysm happens, the blood flow is disrupted. In some cases, the force of the blood can split the layers of the aortic wall. This allows blood to leak between them and is called a dissection. In some cases, an aneurysm may cause the aorta to burst completely. This is called a rupture, and it will cause internal bleeding. Most deaths from aortic aneurysms happen as a result of either dissections or ruptures.

Aortic aneurysms can be very dangerous, but they don’t always cause problems. If you are diagnosed with an aneurysm, your doctor will prescribe treatment and monitor you closely. Additionally, there are some steps people can take to reduce their risk of aortic aneurysm. If you have, have had, or are at risk of experiencing an aortic aneurysm, it is important to find a cardiologist. This is the best way to get the personalized and intensive treatment you need.

What causes aortic aneurysm?

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Up to 80 percent of all aortic aneurysms are caused by atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries. Several factors can contribute to atherosclerosis. If you engage in any of the following behaviors, or if you have any of the following conditions, you have a higher likelihood of developing hard arteries. This, in turn, could lead to an aortic aneurysm.

  • Smoking: Smoking can damage arterial walls. This weakening can make them more likely to bulge. Smoking will also increase a person’s blood pressure, adding further strain to the blood vessels.
  • Vascular Inflammation: Though rare, inflammation of the blood vessels can cause an aortic aneurysm.
  • High Blood Pressure: Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure can weaken the walls of the aorta. This can make an aneurysm more likely to form.

While anyone can have an aortic aneurysm, those in the following groups are at an increased risk of experiencing the cardiac event.

  • People over 60 years old
  • People who are male
  • Individuals who are overweight or obese
  • Those who have a genetic predisposition to cardiovascular diseases
  • People who live a sedentary lifestyle

What are symptoms of aortic aneurysm?

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Unless a person experiences a dissection or rupture, they are not likely to have any aortic aneurysm symptoms. Ideally, you will recognize yourself as a high-risk individual and meet with a cardiologist to assess your condition. However, if you do not regularly see a cardiologist and are at risk for atherosclerosis, you may experience the following symptoms with an aortic aneurysm.

  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweaty or clammy skin
  • Shock
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Sudden pain in the back or abdomen
  • Pain that spreads from the abdomen to the legs, pelvis, of buttocks

Many of these experiences are also symptomatic of other cardiovascular events. If you experience any of them, call your doctor right away. While a symptom may not indicate an aortic aneurysm, it is best to check with your doctor before dismissing the symptom. If your symptoms are severe or painful, go to your nearest emergency room.

What are the types of aortic aneurysm?

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Aortic aneurysms are characterized by where they occur in the body. There are two main types of aortic aneurysm: thoracic and abdominal.

  • Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm: This type of aneurysm occurs in the chest. They are most often caused by high blood pressure or sudden injury, and they happen equally in both men and women. The primary symptom of a thoracic aortic aneurysm is sudden, sharp pain in the chest and/or upper back.
  • Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm: This type of cardiac event occurs below the chest. These are the most common type of aortic aneurysm. They are more likely to occur in men aged 65 and over. Abdominal aortic aneurysms are often caused by atherosclerosis. The primary symptom of this type of aneurysm is a throbbing and deep pain in the side or back.
  • Other Types of Aneurysm: Aneurysms can happen in any blood vessel in the body. For example, a ruptured aneurysm in the brain can cause a stroke. Peripheral aneurysms can occur in the neck, behind the knees, and in the groin. While not as deadly as an aortic aneurysm, this vascular bulging should still be taken seriously.

If you are at risk for any type of aneurysm, it is important to see a cardiologist regularly to begin preventative measures. Even if you are diagnosed with an aneurysm, it will not typically become deadly until it bursts.

How is an aortic aneurysm diagnosed?

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If your aortic aneurysm has not ruptured or dissected, your doctor will likely diagnose it while examining your body for another reason. This is why it is very important to regularly see a physician or cardiologist if you are at risk for a cardiac event.

If your doctor suspects that you have an aortic aneurysm, they will conduct an exam in which they feel your stomach. The doctor will check for any pulsing masses, or any rigid spots. These symptoms may indicate an aortic aneurysm A physician may also use an imaging test, such as a CT scan, an abdominal ultrasound, a chest X-ray, or an abdominal MRI, to check blood flow, especially to the legs.

If you do not experience an aortic aneurysm rupture or dissection, you should ask your cardiologist for regular screenings. Conducted with an ultrasound, these tests generate a picture of the aorta. Using the image, a doctor can determine whether you have a small or early aneurysm forming. Men, smokers, and those over 65 should consider regular screenings with a cardiologist.

Is there an aortic aneurysm treatment?

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Your aortic aneurysm treatment will depend on the bulge’s size and location. The two main forms of treatment are medication and surgery. These often happen in tandem.

There are several types of surgical procedures that can improve an aneurysm prognosis. Many patients will receive open abdominal surgery, which will remove damaged areas of the aorta. If your aneurysm is very large or has already ruptured, this may be the only option. However, most patients will receive endovascular surgery. This is a less-invasive procedure that involves using a graft to firm up the aorta’s weakened walls.

If your aneurysm is small (less than 5.55 cm wide), your cardiologist may decide to prescribe close monitoring and medication rather than suggesting surgery. These medications often include drugs to decrease blood pressure and prevent clotting. Small aneurysms do not often rupture, so some physicians may see this as a safer route.

Still, if your doctor suggests monitoring as part of your treatment, you must be diligent about making appointments. Aneurysms can grow over time, which can lead to severe complications and rupture.

Can you survive an aortic aneurysm?

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In many cases, aortic aneurysms are very survivable. When caught and treated early, most aneurysms will not dissect or rupture. Only when an aneurysm becomes very large, bursting the blood vessel, does it become life threatening. This points up the importance of recognizing risk factors and building a relationship with a cardiologist.

If you are at risk of an aortic aneurysm, you should also focus on heart-healthy habits. Eat a healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, do not smoke, and exercise regularly. Cardiovascular health requires constant effort and maintenance, but with the help of a physician, you can attempt to prevent emergencies before they occur.