Understanding Aneurysms and Aortic Disease

Aortic disease is known as a silent epidemic because each year nearly 47,000 Americans die from the disorder, making it more deadly than breast cancer, AIDS, homicides, or motor vehicle accidents. And that figure is expected to rise as the population ages.

The aorta is the largest artery in the body and is responsible for carrying oxygen-rich blood from the heart to other parts of the body. When an artery wall in the aorta weakens, the wall bulges or "balloons" as blood is pumped through it, causing an aortic aneurysm.

An aneurysm can occur anywhere along the aorta, although most develop in the abdomen and are called abdominal aortic aneurysms. When an aneurysm occurs in the part of the aorta that's higher up in the chest area, it's called a thoracic aortic. Aneurysms can also develop in the arteries in the brain-when an aneurysm in the brain bursts, it's causes a stroke-and heart as well as in other parts of the body.

Although most small and slow-growing aortic aneurysms don't rupture, large, fast-growing ones may, potentially causing life-threatening internal bleeding that requires surgery.

Although aortic aneurysms often go unnoticed because they tend to grow slowly, as they start to grow, you may notice:

  • A pulsating feeling near the navel, if the aneurysm is in the abdomen
  • Tenderness or pain in the stomach or chest
  • Back pain

Some possible symptoms of thoracic aortic aneurysms include:

  • Pain in the jaw, neck and upper back
  • Chest or back pain
  • Coughing, hoarseness, or difficulty breathing

Although the exact causes of abdominal aortic aneurysms are unknown, researchers believe that some factors make people more susceptible to developing the problem, including:

  • Smoking
  • Uncontrolled blood pressure
  • An infection in the aorta

Risk factors for the development of thoracic aortic aneurysms include:

  • Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition that affects the body's connective tissue
  • A previous injury to the aorta, such as a tear in the wall of the aorta
  • Traumatic injury caused by a fall or motor vehicle accident

When to See Your Doctor
If you experience any of the above symptoms, see your doctor and ask if an aortic aneurysm screening is appropriate for you. Your risk factors for an aortic aneurysm increase as you age-they most often occur in people ages 60 and older-although they can develop in younger people with a family history of the disorder.

The Society of Thoracic Surgeons. "Aortic Aneurysms." Web.

The Cleveland Clinic. "Aortic Aneurysm." Web.

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. "Thoracic aortic aneurysm." Web.