What is the Aorta? What are Aortic Aneurysms?

The aorta is the body’s main artery, the pipeline that carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart. It travels from the heart down to the lower abdomen, where it divides into smaller blood vessels.

Certain conditions can weaken the wall of the aorta. The most common of these are:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Obesity
  • Smoking or using stimulant drugs (cocaine and amphetamines)

An aneurysm can form in the weakened aortic wall. This appears as a small bulge in the wall of the aorta, which can slowly expand. Because the bulging area is stretched thinner than the normal aortic wall, it can rupture. This can cause massive internal bleeding and death.

What are the symptoms of an aneurysm?

Most aortic aneurysms do not cause any feelings or symptoms until they begin to expand rapidly or rupture. Therefore, most aneurysms are discovered on exams or tests done for other reasons (like an X-ray, ultrasound or CT scan).

An expanding aneurysm causes symptoms of abdomen, back, flank or groin pain, which may come and go at first, or become constant. In the case of a typical ruptured aneurysm, there is sudden abdominal, back or groin pain. Weakness, dizziness and loss of consciousness follow as blood pressure drops and a shock state occurs. This is a fatal condition unless immediate surgery is performed.

Rarely, a blood clot (thick lump of blood) can form inside of an aortic aneurysm with no symptoms. A piece of the clot can break off and pass to smaller blood vessels in the intestines or legs. That causes pain and loss of blood flow to that part.

How are aneurysms treated?

Small aneurysms rarely rupture and can be safely treated with medicines to lower blood pressure and reduce stress on the aortic wall. Routine ultrasound or CT scans can determine if the aneurysm is growing. Larger aneurysms will require surgery.

Surgical treatment involves removing the section of aorta with the aneurysm and replacing it with an aortic graft (artificial blood vessel). A newer alternative to surgery, which can be used in certain cases, involves the placement of a stent (tubular wire mesh) inside the aorta to support the wall and reduce stress on the aneurysm.