An aneurysm is a bulge or widening in the wall of an artery – the so-called “highways” of the body’s vascular system that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to veins throughout the rest of the body.
The body’s largest artery, the aorta, extends off the heart and runs through the chest down to the abdomen. When an aneurysm affects this key artery, it is known as an aortic aneurysm.
Types of Aortic Aneurysms
“An aortic aneurysm is defined as an increase in aortic diameter of 50 percent over the normal size,” explains Edward Caldwell, DO, a vascular surgeon with St. Elizabeth Physicians.
A thoracic aortic aneurysm occurs when an aneurysm occurs higher up in the aorta close to the heart.
Abdominal aortic aneurysms, or “Triple As” – which occur, as the name suggests, in the portion of the aorta that runs through the abdomen – are the most common type of aortic aneurysms.
Every year, roughly 200,000 new cases of abdominal aortic aneurysm are diagnosed, and roughly 50,000 Triple A repairs are done annually.
How Are Aortic Aneurysms Diagnosed?
Both types of aortic aneurysms are largely asymptomatic, meaning most patients often don’t have any symptoms due to their condition.
“Approximately 75% of abdominal aortic aneurysms are asymptomatic, meaning patients don’t realize they are there,” Caldwell explains. “Often, these patients’ aortic aneurysms are diagnosed when they come in for an exam or scan for another condition, and their aneurysm is found incidentally.”
However, left undetected and untreated, an aortic aneurysm could eventually rupture, leading to a life-threatening emergency. As a result, it’s important for patients at risk for aortic aneurysms – especially men aged 65 and over who are or have been smokers – to be screened for them with an abdominal ultrasound test.
Treatments for Aortic Aneurysms
Once a patient’s aortic aneurysm is discovered, their vascular surgeon will perform routine ultrasounds every six months to a year to monitor and chart the aneurysm’s size and growth.
“Small aneurysms – those between 3 cm and 4.5 cm – typically grow at a rate of 0.2 to 0.3 cm per year on average,” Caldwell says. For most asymptomatic patients, surgical repair of the aneurysm is not generally necessary until it reaches roughly 5.5 cm in size.
“The risk of rupture increases the larger the aneurysm becomes,” Caldwell explains.
Surgical repair of the aneurysm could include either an endovascular operation – which involves a tiny incision – or a traditional, “open” surgical repair. Your vascular surgeon will discuss the pros and cons of each surgical approach to guide you in determining the option that best fits your treatment needs.
In either type of surgery, your vascular surgeon will insert a prosthetic graft into the aorta to repair and reinforce the section damaged by the aneurysm to prevent it from tearing or rupturing in the future.
Symptoms of an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm Rupture
Patients experiencing an abdominal aortic aneurysm rupture may report symptoms including:
· Severe back and flank pain.
· Generalized abdominal pain.
· Other symptoms that may mimic a heart attack.
Get to an emergency room if you think you could be experiencing an aneurysm rupture. A ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm can be fatal, though advances in surgical repair have steadily improved the survival rate.
Do you have additional questions about your risk for aortic aneurysm or feel you might be a candidate for screening? Talk with one of our expert physicians at the St. Elizabeth Physicians Vascular Surgery today. Our caring team is available to assist you with all your heart and vascular health needs.