Aortic Aneurysm Overview
Aortic aneurysm describes an abnormal bulge in the wall of the aorta, the body’s largest artery. About the diameter of a garden hose, the aorta carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart and down through the chest and abdominal regions before dividing into the vessels that supply blood for the legs. Although aneurysms, which can bulge like an overinflated inner tube, can develop anywhere on the aorta, they most often occur in the abdomen abdominal aneurysms or in the chest cavity thoracic aneurysms. These can happen if the aortal walls become weakened through high blood pressure or the build up of fatty acids called plaque, a condition called atherosclerosis that is also a leading cause of heart attacks. Aging, diabetes and inherited diseases such as Marfan’s syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome may also contribute to the development of aneurysms.
Aneurysms are dangerous because they may rupture, bleeding within the abdominal or chest cavity. In addition to severe pain and bleeding, this often leads to death within minutes or hours.
Aneurysms are often asymptomatic until they are large or rupture. Often, they are found incidentally on a chest X-ray or computerized tomography (CT) scan during evaluations for lung disease or heart conditions. Symptoms may occur if the aneurysm presses against nearby organs or tissues. Chest pain and back pain are the two most common symptoms of large aneurysms, but other symptoms might include:
- A pulsating bulge or a strong pulse in the abdomen
- Cold or numbness in the extremities
- Nausea and vomiting
In more severe cases, particularly when blood clots form and break off or if the aorta splits (aortic dissection), the symptoms may also include weakness, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, stroke and loss of consciousness.
Patients who have a history of heart problems, smoking, weight issues or inactive lifestyles are at risk for aortic aneurysm. Aneurysms are four times more common in men than in woman. WellStar especially recommends screening tests of aneurysms for men who are:
- Ages 65 to 75 and have ever smoked
- At least 60 years of age and have a first-degree relative (for example, a father or brother) who has had an aneurysm