Aneurysms - Frequently Asked Questions

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: Dennis Lee, MD

What is an aneurysm?

The term aneurysm refers to any localized widening or outpouching of an artery, a vein, or the heart. Depending on their size and location, aneurysms may or may not produce symptoms. All aneurysms are potentially dangerous since the wall of the widened (dilated) portion of the involved vessel can become weakened and may possibly rupture.

Doctors refer to aneurysms by their anatomic location in the body, such as a thoracic aortic aneurysm, renal artery aneurysm, abdominal aortic aneurysm, heart ventricle aneurysm, etc.

What are some common types of aneurysms?

The most common types of aneurysms involve the aorta, the large vessel that carries oxygen-containing blood away from the heart. In particular, aneurysms most commonly develop in the abdominal portion of the aorta and are designated abdominal aortic aneurysms. Abdominal aortic aneurysms are most common in men over the age of 60. Most aortic aneurysms are caused by atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries") since this condition can weaken the walls of the aorta and lead to thinning and widening of the affected areas.

Another type of aneurysm is a brain aneurysm. Brain aneurysms are widened areas of arteries or veins within the brain itself. These may be caused by head injury, an inherited (congenital) malformation of the vessels, high blood pressure, or atherosclerosis. A special type of brain aneurysm is known as a berry aneurysm. Berry aneurysms are small, berry-shaped outpouchings of the main arteries that supply the brain and are particularly dangerous since they are susceptible to rupture, leading to often fatal bleeding within the brain. Brain aneurysms can occur at any age but are more common in adults than in children.

What are aneurysm symptoms?

Aneurysms may cause pain or may be asymptomatic (meaning that they do not cause symptoms). Many aneurysms are asymptomatic until they leak or rupture. Take abdominal aortic aneurysm for example. Some patients with abdominal aortic aneurysm may experience dull and boring pain in the lower back area. Some patients may feel a pulsating sensation in the abdomen. But many patients with abdominal aortic aneurysm may not have symptoms and are unaware that they have an abdominal aortic aneurysm. However, rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurysm is a catastrophe. Rupture of an abdominal aneurysm causes massive internal hemorrhage and shock, and therefore is a life-threatening surgical emergency. Excruciating pain in the lower abdomen and back usually precedes abdominal aortic aneurysm rupture.

Patients with brain aneurysms are also often asymptomatic and are unaware of their presence. There is usually no warning before a brain aneurysm ruptures and causes bleeding. However, sometimes people with a brain aneurysm may develop a sudden, severe headache, vision changes, nausea, and/or vomiting just before the aneurysm ruptures. Like abdominal aneurysm rupture, rupture of brain aneurysms can produce sudden and catastrophic symptoms with severe headaches, nausea and vomiting, and even loss of consciousness.

How are aneurysms treated?

Surgical repair is the treatment of choice for aortic aneurysms. Brain aneurysms, depending upon their location, may be treated surgically or with special procedures that employ catheters (thin tubes passed through the blood vessels) to block the area of the aneurysm, a technique known as endovascular embolization.

Please read the Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm and Brain Aneurysm articles for information.


Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2008