Explanation of John Ritter's Death

Popular TV Star Dies After Falling Ill From Aortic Dissection

Sept. 12, 2003 -- Popular TV and movie star John Ritter has died from an undetected flaw in his heart called an aortic dissection.

Ritter came to fame in the 1970s TV program "Three's Company" and was experiencing a resurgence in his career with the TV comedy "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter."

He was 54.

An aortic dissection refers to an abnormal separation of tissues within the walls of the aorta, the large blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Aortic dissection results in a weakened blood vessel wall that may also rupture.

Aortic dissection occurs when blood from the aorta leaves its "channel" through a small tear in the aortic wall. It forms a new channel between the inner and outer walls of the aorta.

The weakened blood vessel may burst, which usually results in death if not treated immediately.

Any of the following may cause aortic dissection:

  • High blood pressure. Most patients with an aortic dissection have had high blood pressure for several years. The high blood pressure accelerates the natural processes of tissue aging and damage to the tissue, promoting a weakness of the aortic wall and increasing the risk for a tear.
  • Processes associated with high blood pressure. Medical conditions associated with high blood pressure also increase the risk of developing an aortic dissection. These include pregnancy, lupus, polycystic kidney disease, Cushing's syndrome, temporal arteritis, cocaine abuse, and abuse of stimulants. In pregnancy, the increased frequency of aortic dissections is caused by the combination of hormonal effect on the blood vessel wall and additional high blood pressure stress.
  • Diseases of the connective tissue. Either Marfan's syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome can damage the connective tissue in the middle of the aortic wall. This damage can lead to aortic dissection.
  • Chest injury. Severe chest injury, such as might occur in an automobile accident, may also cause aortic dissection.
  • A family history of aortic dissection is also a risk factor.

Ritter reportedly died after falling ill on the set of his new sitcom. Pain is the leading symptom of aortic dissection. A sudden onset of pain is typical at the moment of dissection. The pain is usually described as ripping or tearing and as the worst pain ever experienced. It is usually in between the shoulders on the back and might radiate to the arms or the neck. Less frequently, the pain can be felt as chest pain. The pain is very difficult to distinguish from that of angina or a heart attack.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Shock
  • Numbness and the inability to move the legs
  • Lack of pulse
  • Swelling
  • Pale skin

Along with sudden death, aortic dissections can result in:

  • Heart attack
  • Shock
  • Damage to the aortic valve of the heart
  • Pericardial tamponade (blood in the heart sac)
  • Lack of oxygen to the arms or legs
  • Paralysis of the lower part of the body and the legs (paraplegia)
  • Kidney failure

Show Sources

SOURCES: CNN. Associated Press. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Aortic Aneurysm." WebMD Medical Reference provided in collaboration with The Cleveland Clinic: "Aortic Aneurysm."
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