Aortic Dissection - Diagnosis

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How is aortic dissection diagnosed?

The health care professional should always be suspicious of aortic dissection as one of the three major causes of chest pain that can cause death, in addition to heart attack and pulmonary embolism.

If the patient has unstable vital signs, poor breathing, abnormal pulse, low blood pressure, and/or a decreased level of consciousness, the ABCs of resuscitation (Airway, Breathing, Circulation) need to be addressed while the evaluation of the patient continues.

Patient History

The history is one of the important first steps in trying to make the diagnosis. It is important to consider not only the symptoms but also the risk factors of high blood pressure, genetic or family history, and the presence of other medical conditions that may predispose the patient to aortic dissection.

Physical examination may show potential complications of the aortic aneurysm and allow the health care professional to consider this as a potential diagnosis. Again, the presenting symptoms will depend upon the location of the dissection and what organs are involved. Symptoms, depending on the location of the dissection, may include:

  • Blood pressure discrepancy between the arms
  • Pulse delay between arms and legs
  • Listening for fluid in the lung or for a new heart murmur that may help assess the aortic valve
  • New stroke symptoms
  • Paraplegia

The initial tests for chest pain, an electrocardiogram and a chest X-ray, are usually done. Unless the dissection involves the coronary arteries, the electrocardiogram is usually normal. The chest X-ray may show an abnormal shape to the aorta and a widened mediastinum (that space where the heart, aorta, vena cava, trachea, and esophagus sit in the chest cavity).

The diagnostic test of choice is an aortic angiogram using computerized tomography of the chest and abdomen. This test requires a contrast dye injection and visualizes the aorta and other blood vessels that branch off from it. Alternatively, for those people who cannot undergo computerized tomography, transesophageal echocardiography is an option. A cardiologist puts an ultrasound probe through the mouth into the esophagus and can identify potential problems with the heart, heart valves, and the aorta.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can also be used, but is not often technically easily available with unstable patients and takes much longer to perform than a CT scan.

Return to Aortic Dissection

See what others are saying

Comment from: Rocki, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: October 18

I had abdominal pain where I can feel a pulse.

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Comment from: Oregon 2580, 65-74 Male (Patient) Published: October 18

My dissection was type b which extended the full length from thorax to pelvic split. It was caused by an aneurysm that split internally. I felt nothing prior to the dissection but felt an intense ripping pain downward through my chest when it occurred. The pain was so intense I could not stand and I fell. After about fifteen minutes, I was able to get up off the floor but I had considerable back pain in the vicinity of my left kidney and lung. My dissection went undiagnosed and untreated for 48 hours. I finally drove myself to the emergency room because I was having problems breathing. An X-ray and CT scan determined that my left lung sac was partially filled with blood leakage and I was admitted to the ICU. I know I beat the odds by not rushing to immediate treatment and I was very fortunate to survive. The ICU doctors placed me among about ten percent of victims of this type dissection who survive. I'm three and a half years as a survivor and continue to have issues. The Aorta has healed nicely but it remains ballooned. Blood Pressure control is my biggest issue.

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