Last December, the world was shocked to learn that veteran diplomat and special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard C. Holbrooke had suddenly died after suffering a tear in his aorta.

Aortic tears are rare, killing about 2,000 Americans a year, and are more common in men than women. They usually affect people between the ages of 60 and 70. Some causes of aortic tears include

  • uncontrolled high blood pressure
  • atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • genetic predisposition to have weak aortic tissue or an abnormal aortic valve

The aorta is the largest artery in the body-arteries carry blood away from the heart-and has three layers: the tunica adventitia, the tunica media, and the tunica intima. A tear in the wall of the aorta causes blood to flow between the layers, forcing them apart. If the blood-filled channel ruptures through the outside aortic wall, the condition is usually fatal. An aortic tear is often associated with aneurysms, which are weakened areas in the artery wall.

Aorta Tear Risk Factors

The risk factors for aortic tears, also called aortic dissection, include:

  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
  • An aortic valve defect
  • Certain genetic diseases, including Turner's syndrome, Marfan syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
  • Gender, men have about double the rate of aortic dissection
  • Age, incidences of aortic dissection peaks in the 60s and 70s
  • Cocaine use
  • Pregnancy

Torn Aorta Symptoms

Aortic tear symptoms may be similar to those of other heart problems, such as a heart attack, and may include:

  • Sudden severe chest or upper back pain
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Stroke
  • Sweating
  • High blood pressure
  • Different pulse rates in each arm


The most important factor in reducing your risk for aortic dissection is to keep your blood pressure under control. Other preventive measures include:

  • Not smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Controlling cholesterol
  • Wearing a seat belt. Seat belts can reduce the risk of traumatic injury to the chest area when you're in an car accident.
  • Keeping your doctor informed. Be sure to let your primary care physician know if you have a genetic condition that increases your risk of aortic tears. She may recommend blood pressure medications even if your blood pressure is normal.

If you experience any signs or symptoms of an aortic tear, contact your doctor or emergency medical assistance immediately. Getting early treatment may help save your life.

Grady, Denise. "How a Torn Aorta Can Do Lethal Damage." December 20, 2010. New York Times