If your doctor diagnosed you with an abdominal aortic aneurysm, you probably have lots of questions. You might not know what the condition means or how it will affect your health.
That’s understandable. Learning about your diagnosis can help you make the most informed choices and keep you as strong and fit as possible.
What Is an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm?
Your aorta is the major blood vessel supplying blood from your heart to the rest of your body. It runs all the way down into your abdomen, that part of your body between your chest and pelvis.
If you have an abdominal aortic aneurysm, it means the lower section of your aorta -- in your abdomen -- has weakened and is bulging. It’s a serious condition because if the enlarged part of the aorta were to burst, the bleeding could be fatal.
If you have one, your doctor will want to watch it closely to decide if you need surgery.
What Are the Symptoms?
You might not even know you have this condition because it often doesn’t have any symptoms. Some aneurysms start out small and get bigger gradually. Others grow quickly, and some never grow at all.
If yours is growing, you may feel:
- Pain deep inside, or on the side of, your abdomen
- Sudden, severe back pain
- A pulsating feeling in your abdomen
If you have any of these signs, see your doctor immediately or call 911.
What Are the Causes?
Doctors don’t know exactly why abdominal aortic aneurysms happen, but they do know several things that can play a part:
- Smoking and using other types of tobacco
- Hardening of your arteries, which is called atherosclerosis
- High blood pressure
- Blood vessel diseases
- Infections in the aorta
- Trauma from something like a car accident
Who Is Most at Risk?
Some people are more likely than others to get abdominal aortic aneurysms. Among them are:
- People 65 or older
- People with a family history of the condition
Also, your chance of having this condition is higher if you have had an aneurysm before.
If your odds of getting an aneurysm are high, you might want to talk with your doctor about a screening.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Because abdominal aortic aneurysms often show no symptoms, your doctor might be the first to find it, perhaps after a routine exam. If he thinks you have one, he may order specific tests.
Abdominal ultrasound. This is the most common test to look for abdominal aortic aneurysms. A technician will apply warm gel to your abdomen and use a special device that uses sound waves to look inside you, painlessly, for signs of an aneurysm.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). This test, which also is painless, creates images of the inside of your abdomen using radio waves and a magnetic field. Your doctor will inject you with a special dye that will show up on the images and reveal where the aneurysm is located and how big it is. You have to lie down on a table that slides into a tunnel, and some people find MRI machines loud and constricting. Tell your doctor if you have problems with small spaces.
CT scan (computed tomography scan). You also lie on a table for this. Like the MRI, this machine is loud, but it’s not as closed-in. It creates clear X-ray images of your aorta.
If you’re not having any symptoms, and your aneurysm is small, your doctor may choose to simply monitor it over time. It’s likely you’ll need regular tests to check on its size and growth.
But if it’s growing fast, or causing you problems, your doctor may decide to operate. He will take out the damaged part of your aorta and replace it with a man-made tube called a graft.
In some cases, you may be able to get a procedure called endovascular surgery. This involves your doctor attaching the graft to a thin tube called a catheter and feeding it through an artery in your leg all the way to your aorta. This procedure is less invasive, meaning the doctor only has to make small cuts, or incisions, and your healing time will be shorter.
You and your doctor will talk about which option is best for you.
Lower Your Odds
There are no medications to prevent an abdominal aortic aneurysm. But there are things you can do to help lower your odds:
- If you smoke, quit.
- Eat more “heart-healthy” foods – fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, for example.
- Exercise regularly to strengthen your blood vessels.
Also, you and your doctor should watch your blood pressure and cholesterol to make sure they’re where they should be.