Aortic Aneurysm: Overview and More

Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

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An aortic aneurysm is a bulging of the aorta, the main artery that travels from the heart to supply blood to the rest of the body. The most common location of an aortic aneurysm is the abdomen. Aortic aneurysms can rupture, leading to catastrophic blood loss and death.

If you get prompt medical attention, emergency surgical repair may save your life. An aortic aneurysm that is diagnosed prior to rupture can be surgically repaired, too, with a good prognosis.

Aortic Aneurysm Symptoms

An aortic aneurysm can produce symptoms that wax and wane before it ruptures. Often, when an aortic aneurysm becomes larger, symptoms either begin for the first time or worsen.

Symptoms may be an indication that a rupture is more likely to happen. The symptoms of a ruptured aortic aneurysm are relatively dramatic and progress rapidly over the course of minutes.

aortic aneurysm symptoms
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The aorta is a large blood vessel that exits from the heart to carry oxygenated blood to the body. Many small arteries branch off of it.

The two regions where an aortic aneurysm is most likely to develop are in the abdominal section of the aorta, which is located behind the belly, and the thoracic section of the aorta, which is located behind the ribs. 

No matter where in the aorta the aneurysm occurs, the pain is often described as sharp and tearing.

Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm 

The abdominal section of the aorta is the most common region of an aortic aneurysm, and this type of an aneurysm is often referred to as AAA (abdominal aortic aneurysm). The symptoms can be subtle (or there may be no symptoms at all prior to a rupture) and may include: 

  • Back pain in the mid to lower part of the back
  • Abdominal pain and discomfort
  • Pulsating sensation in the abdomen

Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm

A thoracic aortic aneurysm is in the section of the aorta near where it exits the heart. It is located in the chest. As with an AAA, symptoms may be subtle or there may not be symptoms prior to rupture.

These symptoms involve: 

  • Chest pain
  • Back pain
  • Shortness of breath

Ruptured Aortic Aneurysm

When an aortic aneurysm ruptures, symptoms can progress rapidly. The most common symptoms of an aortic aneurysm rupture include:

  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, and blurred vision
  • Severe weakness
  • Severe chest, abdominal, or back pain
  • Loss of consciousness

Aortic Aneurysm Affecting Other Organs 

Blood clots may form within an aortic aneurysm. If these blood clots break off and travel to other areas of the body, they can cause organ damage, such as stroke, kidney failure, or a heart attack. The symptoms vary and may include chest pain, vision loss, and blood in the urine. 

Aortic Aneurysm vs. Dissection

Apart from aneurysm, the aorta can be severely damaged by dissection. This occurs when blood under pressure forces a tear in the wall of the aorta and within the layers of tissue that form it. A sudden onset of severe "tearing" pain in the chest or back is common. An aortic dissection requires immediate medical attention.

Causes

An aortic aneurysm can develop when the walls of the aorta become weak. This can happen over time as a result of diseases and conditions that tend to affect all blood vessels of the body, not just the aorta.

This aorta weakness causes bulging, which results in a predisposition for rupturing or blood clotting. The physical pressure of an aneurysm on nearby organs can cause some symptoms, while the blood loss of an aneurysm rupture causes the more severe and life-threatening consequences.  

Leading Risk Factors

  • Smoking, by far, is the main risk factor for aortic aneurysms. Smokers have a fivefold increase in the incidence of aortic aneurysms compared to nonsmokers.
  • Aging, as aortic aneurysms are rare in people under 60 years of age
  • Male gender, with aortic aneurysms occurring less commonly in women
  • Long-term high blood pressure, or hypertension, particularly if untreated
  • Hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, which occurs as a result of high cholesterol and hypertension. It makes the walls of the artery irregular and prone to weakening.
  • A family history of aortic aneurysm
  • Genetic diseases that increase the risk of an aortic aneurysm, including Marfan syndrome, bicuspid aortic valve, familial thoracic aortic aneurysms, and polycystic kidney disease
  • Trauma to the abdomen or chest, which may cause an aortic aneurysm to develop or rupture

Risk Factors for Rupture

It is not easy to predict whether an aortic aneurysm will rupture. Worsening symptoms, large size or enlarging size of an aneurysm, as well as evidence of slow bleeding on an imaging exam, all suggest an increased likelihood of rupture. Extreme changes in blood pressure or severe infections can increase the chances of an aortic aneurysm rupture as well. 

Diagnosis

The initial symptoms of an aortic aneurysm are often due to rupture—and rupture can be fatal. If you have an aortic aneurysm, your outcome will be much better if the aneurysm is diagnosed before it produces any symptoms. Here are the diagnostic methods:

  • Screening: Most pre-rupture aortic aneurysms are diagnosed when people with risk factors are specifically screened for it, even if there are no symptoms. The U.S Preventative Services Task Force has established recommendations for aortic aneurysm screening. 
  • Physical examination: A pulsatile mass, which is a large pulsing area deep in the abdomen, can be detected by physical exam in about a third of people who have AAA.
  • Chest X-ray: This is not usually the test that your healthcare provider would order, but many aneurysms are first detected with a routine chest X-ray ordered for another reason.
  • Ultrasound study: Ultrasound studies are considered particularly sensitive in the diagnosis of aortic aneurysms because they detect changes in fluid movement and anatomical structure.
  • CT scan: Computed tomography can be used to detect changes in the structure of the aorta and can be useful in surgical planning. 
  • MRI scan: Magnetic resonance imaging can identify anatomical abnormalities. Depending on the specifics of your aneurysm, an MRI or a CT may be selected to evaluate your aorta. 

Treatment

If you have been told that you have an aortic aneurysm, you and your healthcare provider will have to decide on a treatment plan. The two approaches to aneurysm management include surgical repair to prevent rupture, or carefully monitoring over time.

To a large extent, this decision will depend on the estimated likelihood that your aneurysm will rupture and on your estimated risk from surgery.

The likelihood that an aortic aneurysm will rupture depends largely on two factors: the size of an aneurysm and its rate of growth.

The size of an aortic aneurysm is considered the best indicator of the risk of rupture and it can be measured by ultrasound testing, CT scan, or MRI.

Aneurysms greater than 5.5 cm in diameter in men, or greater than 5.2 cm in women, are more likely to rupture than smaller aneurysms.

If these threshold diameter values have been reached, the risk of rupture is greater than 40% over five years and surgery is often recommended. Below these threshold values, the risk of rupture may be closer to the risk of complications from surgery, so surgery might not be recommended.

Surgery

Repair of an aneurysm requires a surgical procedure. There are several methods of surgical repair, including what is referred to as an open repair and another approach which is an endovascular repair.

Your surgeon will plan out your procedure to give you the best chance of effective repair and safe recovery with as few complications as possible. 

Many people with aortic aneurysms have other cardiovascular disorders due to age and other risk factors, so the risk associated with surgical repair is often not trivial. In general, the risk of dying from the surgical procedure is usually low but needs to be assessed for each individual. 

If surgery is not recommended, then regular reassessments of the size of an aneurysm should be made.

If an aneurysm grows in size by more than 0.5 cm in a year, the risk of rupture is much higher. Surgery is usually recommended even if the overall size of an aneurysm is still less than 5.0 or 5.5 cm.

Aortic Aneurysm Rupture

An aortic aneurysm rupture is a surgical emergency. If this happens to you or a loved one, immediate medical stabilization and surgical repair are necessary. In addition to repair of the aneurysm, excessive blood loss and impact on other organs must be managed as well. 

Prevention

An aortic aneurysm is more likely if you have certain risk factors. Some of the risk factors, such as age and genetic predisposition, are not controllable. Other risk factors, however, can be modified or controlled, which greatly reduces your chances of developing an aortic aneurysm.

Some of the steps you can take to reduce your risk include:

  • Don't smoke: Smoking is a major risk factor for all vascular disease, including aortic aneurysms.
  • Control blood pressure: High blood pressure is a significant contributor to vascular disease, and maintaining normal blood pressure by the use of diet, stress control, or medications reduces your chances of developing an aortic aneurysm. 
  • Control your cholesterol level: High cholesterol leads to atherosclerosis, which is the hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is among the leading causes of an aortic aneurysm.
  • Get regular medical care: Routine medical visits are important. Your healthcare provider may discover that you could be at risk of having an aortic aneurysm and you may need a screening test. They also can detect and treat conditions that increase your risk of aortic aneurysms.

A Word From Verywell

Aortic aneurysms often do not cause symptoms, which makes screening important, especially if you have risk factors. If you have an aortic aneurysm, the decision about whether you need a repair and the details of this major procedure require a vascular surgeon. After repair, however, most people have a good outcome and do not experience a ruptured aortic aneurysm.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the life expectancy of someone with an aortic aneurysm?

    The outcomes vary depending on the individual case. One study found that people with a repaired but intact AAA had a 5-year survival rate of 65%. The ruptured aortic aneurysm survival rate was 41% at five years.

  • What is the survival rate for aortic dissection surgery?

    People who have surgery for an ascending aorta dissection have about a 65% survival rate for the procedure and may need surgery again in the future. Keep in mind that symptoms of aortic dissection are similar to those seen with other conditions. One study found a third of cases to be initially misdiagnosed.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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