Your heart is the most important muscle in your body. During your lifetime it will pump enough blood to fill about three supertankers. The aorta, the largest blood vessel in the body, helps push all that blood along.
Although your aorta is a tough, durable workhorse, sometimes its walls can weaken and bulge in what is called an aortic aneurysm. This could cause a leak that spills blood into your body.
Some aortic aneurysms burst, some don’t. Others force blood flow away from your organs and tissues, causing problems, such as heart attacks, kidney damage, stroke, and even death.
Types of Aortic Aneurysms
There are two types of aortic aneurysms. One, located in the chest, is a thoracic aortic aneurysm. The other is in the abdomen and is called an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
Thoracic aortic aneurysm. Genes play a role in your chances of having an aortic aneurysm in your chest. Conditions that people can be born with that can affect the aorta include a bicuspid aortic valve, Marfan syndrome, and Loeys-Dietz syndrome.
Other causes for thoracic aneurysm might include:
- High blood pressure
- Plaque buildup in your arteries (atherosclerosis)
- High cholesterol
- Sudden traumatic injury
You might not know you have a thoracic aortic aneurysm because symptoms often don’t show up until the aneurysm becomes large, or bursts. But as it grows, you may notice some signs, including:
- Chest or back pain
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Shortness of breath
Your doctor often can diagnose a thoracic aortic aneurysm during regular exams and tests such as an X-ray, an echocardiogram, CT scan, or ultrasound. It's also often monitored on an annual basis to assess for growth.
Routine screenings, especially for specific genetic conditions, can also help your doctor find out if your chances are higher. If they are, he might prescribe medications to lower your cholesterol and reduce your blood pressure.
If your aneurysm becomes a major problem or grows rapidly in size, you might need surgery. Your doctor will replace the damaged section of your aorta with a man-made tube. Once it’s in place, the graft will make that section of the aorta stronger.
Abdominal aortic aneurysm. This can happen in the portion of your aorta that passes through your abdomen. There are usually no telltale signs to warn you that something is wrong. Still, you might have:
- Back pain
- A deep pain on the side of your abdomen
- A throbbing sensation near your navel
If the aneurysm ruptures, you might feel sick to your stomach, or suddenly develop an intense pain in your back or abdomen. You might vomit, become sweaty, or feel dizzy.
Doctors don’t really know what causes an abdominal aortic aneurysm, although they suspect a few things might play a role:
- Hardening of the arteries, which doctors also call atherosclerosis
- High blood pressure
- Genetic predisposition
Doctors also think the risks increase if you injure yourself, have an infection, or if your blood vessels become inflamed. Genetics also play a role.
If the doctor diagnoses you with an abdominal aneurysm, there can be a chance of blood clots. Small clots can form in the area of the aneurysm, break off, and flow to the legs, kidneys, or other organs.
Diagnosis and Treatment
As with a thoracic aortic aneurism, your doctor can sometimes detect an abdominal aortic aneurysm during a routine exam. He might suggest an ultrasound screening, too, especially if you are a man from 65 to 75 years old who has ever smoked, or he thinks your chances of getting an aortic aneurysm are high.
If he finds a bulge, and it’s small, he might want to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t get bigger and become a problem later. If the aneurysm is large, you might need surgery.