The aorta is the main blood vessel that carries blood out of your heart into the rest of your body. As it comes down through your chest and abdomen, it gives branches to your neck and brain, your arms, your stomach, intestines, kidneys and finally splits to give blood to each leg. An aneurysm of the aorta is a condition in which the blood vessel becomes weak and stretches beyond the normal size. If untreated, the aneurysm can continue to grow, burst open (rupture) and cause severe.
The most common type of aneurysm is an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA), which is in the area from your abdomen to your pelvis. An aneurysm can also appear in your chest, in which case it is called a thoracic aortic aneurysm (TAA). Less common areas for aneurysm formation include the artery behind the knee (popliteal aneurysm) and arteries in the thigh (femoral aneurysm).
The precise cause of aortic aneurysms is not known. It is known that this condition is often hereditary, that they are more common in men, they are more common as you get older and they are more common in smokers. Anyone who has a family member who has had an aneurysm, or any man who is between ages 65 and 75 and has smoked in the past, qualifies for a one time screening ultrasound from medicare to check the aorta for aneurysms. Ask your doctor if you qualify for AAA screening.
Most aortic aneurysms do not cause any symptoms until they burst open. If you have risk factors for an aortic aneurysm you may want to get screened with an ultrasound test.
Some people with very large abdominal aneurysms may have symptoms including:
- A pulsating mass in your abdomen
- A sudden severe abdominal or back pain
Symptoms of an aneurysm in the chest (thoracic aneurysm) include:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
It is critical to inform your doctor as soon as you experience these symptoms to avoid further complications and even death.
The treatment depends on the location and size of the aneurysm and whether symptoms are present.
- Watchful Waiting: Small aneurysms may not require surgery. They may actually take many years to reach a dangerous size. Your doctor may regularly monitor you every 6-12 months to see if the aneurysm is growing.
- Endovascular Stent Graft Repair: Using modern technology the vast majority of aneurysms can be fixed using a stent graft. A stent graft is a metal tube that is inserted into the blood vessel under the guidance of live X-ray pictures. The blood will be directed through the tube and the pressure is relieved from the aneurysm. Over time, the aneurysm will remain stable or may even shrink in size.
- Endovascular AAA Repair: This involves making an incision over the aneurysm and sewing a fabric tube to directly replace the aneurysm. This type of procedure is sometimes performed when the endovascular repair is not suitable.