Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Aortic Aneurysm Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

Having to move to a new city and change jobs is difficult for most people but not as tough as it has become for NBA player, Jeff Green. After being traded from Oklahoma City to Boston, his career has come to a grinding halt because a routine preseason physical exam found some not so routine results. An echocardiogram, or ultrasound, of Mr. Green's heart detected an aortic aneurysm, which is an abnormal bulging of the main artery that leads from the heart to the rest of his body. He underwent successful surgery to repair the problem in January 2012. Without repair, the aorta can leak or rupture, potentially causing sudden death.

Usually, aortic aneurysms are found in older people and are associated with hypertension or high blood pressure. The increased force of blood being pushed from the heart against the walls of the aorta combined with a gradual breakdown of the protein and elastic fibers in the blood vessel wall causes a weak spot to form. When a portion of the aorta weakens, it can balloon out just like a tire wall can have a weak spot that balloons out. In younger patients, the mechanism is different, and a couple of different risk factors are present. With Marfan syndrome, a gene mutation can cause an abnormal protein in the building blocks that make up the aorta and this leads to weakened arterial walls. Another alternative cause is an abnormal aortic valve, the one way valve that allows every heart beat to squeeze blood from the heart into the aorta.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm facts

  • An aneurysm is an abnormal area of localized widening of a blood vessel.
  • The aorta bulges at the site of an aneurysm like a weak spot on a worn tire.
  • Aortic aneurysms are typically spindle-shaped and involve the aorta below the arteries to the kidneys.
  • The most common cause of an aneurysm is arteriosclerosis. Smoking is a major risk factor.
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysms often do not cause symptoms. If they do, they may cause deep boring pain in the lower back or flank. Prominent abdominal pulsations may be present.
  • X-rays of the abdomen and other radiologic tests including ultrasound, CT, and MRI may be used in diagnosing and monitoring the aneurysm.
  • Rupture of an aortic aneurysm is a catastrophe.
  • Repair of the aneurysm can be done by surgery or endovascular stenting.

What is an aneurysm?

An aneurysm is an area of a localized widening (dilation) of a blood vessel. The word "aneurysm" is borrowed from the Greek "aneurysma" meaning "a widening."

What is an aortic aneurysm?

An aortic aneurysm involves the aorta, the major artery that leaves the heart to supply blood to the body. An aortic aneurysm is a dilation or bulging of the aorta.

What is the thoracic and abdominal aorta?

The aorta is the large artery that exits the heart and delivers blood to the body. It begins at the aortic valve that separates the left ventricle of the heart from the aorta and prevents blood from leaking back into the heart after a contraction, when the heart pumps blood. The various sections of the aorta are named based upon the relation to the heart and the location in the body. Thus, the beginning of the aorta is referred to as the ascending aorta, followed by the arch of the aorta, then the descending aorta. The portion of the aorta that is located in the chest (thorax) is referred to as the thoracic aorta, while the abdominal aorta is located in the abdomen. The abdominal aorta extends from the diaphragm to the mid-abdomen where it splits into the iliac arteries that supply the legs with blood.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/30/2015

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