An enlargement or bulge of the aorta, the largest blood vessel of the body, is not an unusual condition. This condition is referred to as an aortic aneurysm. The enlargement usually affects only a small part of the vessel, so bulge is a more accurate description.
An aneurysm occurs when a segment of the vessel becomes weakened. The pressure of the blood flowing through the vessel creates a bulge at the weak spot, much as an overinflated inner tube can cause a bulge in a tire.
The bulge usually starts small and grows as the pressure continues. Aneurysms are dangerous because they can rupture, causing internal bleeding.
Cardiologists and cardiac surgeons at St. Vincent’s Regional Heart & Vascular Center are skilled at diagnosing and treating aortic aneurysms.
The aorta, the main artery coming from the heart, carries oxygen-rich blood to other parts of the body. It extends from the left chamber of the heart and goes through the chest, down through the abdomen and into the pelvis or groin. Once it reaches the groin, it divides into two vessels that supply blood to the lower trunk and both legs.
In the chest, the aorta is called the thoracic aorta; in the abdomen, the abdominal aorta. Almost every artery in the body branches off of the aorta. These arteries supply blood to the brain, other vital organs (liver, stomach, small and large bowel, spinal cord) and nerves, bones, muscles, and cells that allow the body to function.
Damage to the aorta can threaten vital functions. If the damage is severe enough, or not treated, it can even cause death. The bulging can occur anywhere along the entire vessel, but is most common in the abdominal aorta, where it is known as abdominal aortic aneurysm (triple AAA). If it occurs in the thoracic aorta, it is known as thoracic aortic aneurysm.
The wall of the artery is made up of three layers. Bulges in an artery are classified as true aneurysm, false aneurysm, or aortic dissection.
A true aneurysm involves all three layers of the blood vessel wall.
A false aneurysm of the artery is contained only by the two outer layers of the blood vessel wall and clot. This is a very fragile condition with high risk of bursting. False aneurysms are usually a result of an infection.
Because the abdominal aorta is such a large vessel, a ruptured abdominal aneurysm is a life-threatening event Fortunately, not all aneurysms rupture right away. Many grow very slowly and cause no symptoms or problems for many years.
Aortic aneurysm frequency
- Each year, about 15,000 people in the United States die of a ruptured abdominal aneurysm. This makes it the 13th leading cause of death in this country.
- Most aneurysms occur in people aged 55 years or older.
- The number of aneurysms in the United States is increasing as the population increases and ages.
- Aneurysms are four times more common in men than in women.
Surgery to repair aortic aneurysms
When detected in time, most aneurysms can be electively repaired with cardiac surgery. Learn more about aortic aneurysm surgery and abdominal aortic aneurysm surgery.
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