If the term “aneurysm” is Greek to you, you’re right. The word is derived from the Greek and means “widening.” Medically speaking, an aneurysm refers to a bulge in an artery, a vein or the heart wall. When such a bulge occurs in the aorta, it is known as an aortic aneurysm.
The major artery in the chest and abdomen, the aorta extends trunklike from the heart, delivering oxygen-rich blood to smaller arteries throughout the body. But sometimes a weak spot develops along its wall. As blood flows through, the weakened area balloons out. Sometimes this ballooning occurs in the thoracic aorta (the chest); other times, in the abdominal aorta.
Eventually, this ballooned area may rupture under the force of flowing blood. If not repaired immediately, a ruptured aneurysm can cause death.
High blood pressure and damage from a heart attack are the major causes of a thoracic aneurysm. Atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries, often is responsible for an abdominal aneurysm. But an aortic aneurysm can also be caused by an inherited or congenital disorder, a traumatic injury and, in rare cases, untreated syphilis.
Although aneurysms are most common in middle-aged or older people, the condition can strike at any age.
In its early stages, an aneurysm has no symptoms. In many cases, the bulges are discovered unexpectedly during a routine physical exam. An X-ray, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or a CT (computed tomography) scan can detect an aneurysm and pinpoint its location.
If the aneurysm is small and causes no symptoms, a physician may simply monitor its growth. The larger it grows, the more likely it is to burst.
If an aneurysm causes pain, is larger than 6 centimeters or is growing rapidly, surgery to replace the diseased vessel with a synthetic vessel is the treatment of choice. Some medical centers are currently exploring endovascular repair, a minimally invasive procedure in which a graft is threaded through a large artery in the leg to the site of the aneurysm, avoiding the need for open-abdominal surgery.