The largest blood vessel in the body, the aorta carries blood from the heart through the chest and abdomen to the legs. If the wall of the aorta (or any blood vessel) is damaged or weakened, it may expand and form a balloon-like shape called an aneurysm.
An aneurysm may form anywhere along the aorta in the chest, abdomen, or pelvis. It can be a serious condition; if an aortic aneurysm ruptures, it can cause life-threatening internal bleeding.
Aortic aneurysms signs and symptoms depend on the size and severity of the aneurysm. Many aneurysms start small and never expand. These usually cause no symptoms and are only detected during a routine medical exam.
Some aneurysms grow slowly over time, while others grow quickly. Generally, the larger and faster an aneurysm grows, the higher the risk of it rupturing.
Symptoms of a growing aortic aneurysm may include:
- Deep, constant pain in the back or abdominal area
- Back pain
- A pulse near the bellybutton
“Aortic aneurysm patients benefit from multi-disciplinary care like that found at Scripps,” says Devin Zarkowsky, MD, a vascular surgeon with Scripps Clinic who treats aortic aneurysms. “Vascular surgeons, cardiac surgeons, cardiologists, and radiologists all collaborate to ensure that the best care pathway is chosen.”
A ruptured aneurysm is a medical emergency that requires immediate care. Symptoms of a ruptured aortic aneurysm include:
- Sudden, intense and lasting pain in the abdomen or back
- Low blood pressure
- Racing pulse
“If you are an aneurysm patient and have sudden, severe pain in your back or abdomen, go to an urgent care or emergency department,” says Dr. Zarkowsky. “Other conditions may cause similar symptoms, so it is important to determine the cause and provide appropriate treatment.”
Tobacco use is the single-most influential risk factor for aneurysm disease. Smoking can weaken the walls of blood vessels, and the more you use tobacco, the greater the risk.
Also called hardening of the arteries, atherosclerosis is due to a buildup of fat and plaque on the wall of a blood vessel.
Some diseases cause inflammation of the blood vessels, which makes them weaker.
Accidents and blunt force trauma can cause an aortic aneurysm.
Family history is also a significant risk factor for aortic aneurysms. If a parent or sibling has had one, your risk is 10 times greater than average.
- Age: Aortic aneurysms most often affect people age 65 and older.
- Being male: Aortic aneurysms are much more common among men than women.
- Having other aneurysms: An aneurysm in another large blood vessel may increase the risk of developing an aortic aneurysm.
“If you have a higher risk of developing an aortic aneurysm, we may prescribe medicine to lower your blood pressure and reduce the stress on your blood vessels,” says Dr. Zarkowsky. “We also may order an ultrasound test to scan for aneurysms, especially if you are over 65 and a former or current smoker.”
Aortic aneurysm treatment depends on the size of the aneurysm and how quickly it is growing. Small aneurysms may be monitored through regular physical exams and imaging tests. Large or ruptured aneurysms may need surgery.
Healthy lifestyle habits can help prevent or slow the growth of aortic aneurysms.
- Avoid using tobacco
- Eat a healthy diet low in saturated fats, salt and processed foods
- Exercise daily
- Keep your blood pressure under control