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Understanding aortic aneurysm

» Ballooning under pressure

» Reasons for weakening

» Early detection and treatment

On the alert

Call your doctor if you experience these symptoms:

  • Pain in the chest, neck, back and abdomen may be signs of a thoracic aneurysm. The pain may be sudden and sharp.
  • Back pain, diminished appetite, weight loss, a feeling of fullness after eating a small meal, nausea, vomiting and a pulsating mass in the abdomen may be signs of an abdominal aneurysm.

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.

Ballooning under pressure

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.

Reasons for weakening

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.

Early detection and treatment

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.

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