An aortic aneurysm is a bulge in a section of your aorta, your body’s main artery. The aorta carries oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Because the section with the aneurysm is overstretched and weak, it can burst. If this happens, it can cause serious bleeding that can quickly lead to death.
The wall of the aorta is normally very elastic. It can stretch and then shrink back as needed to adapt to blood flow. But some medical problems, such as high blood pressure and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), weaken the artery walls. These problems, along with the wear and tear that naturally occurs with aging, can result in a weak aortic wall that bulges.
Most aortic aneurysms don't cause symptoms. Sometimes a doctor finds an aortic aneurysm during exams or tests done for other reasons. People who do have symptoms complain of belly, chest or back pain and discomfort. The symptoms may come and go or stay constant. In the worst case, an aneurysm can burst, or rupture. This causes severe pain and bleeding and often leads to death within minutes to hours.
An aortic aneurysm can also lead to other problems. Blood flow often slows in the bulging section of an aortic aneurysm, causing clots to form. If a blood clot breaks off from an aortic aneurysm in your chest area, it can travel to your brain and cause a stroke. Blood clots that break off from an aortic aneurysm in your belly area can block blood flow to your belly or legs.
Treatment of an aortic aneurysm is based on how big it is and how fast it’s growing. If you have a large or fast-growing aneurysm, you’ll need surgery to fix it. Your physician may choose to perform an aortic endograft, where a small incision is made in the groin and a catheter is inserted in the artery that leads to the aorta. An endograft is inserted through the catheter and placed on the damaged section of the artery. CoxHealth is a training hospital for this procedure, and was the first hospital in the region to perform it.
Small aneurysms rarely rupture and are usually treated with high blood pressure medicine, such as beta-blockers. This medicine helps lower blood pressure and stress on the aortic wall. If you don't have a repair surgery or procedure, you’ll have routine ultrasound tests to monitor your aneurysm.
Even if your aneurysm doesn’t grow or rupture, you may be at risk for heart problems. Your doctor may suggest that you exercise more, eat a heart-healthy diet and stop smoking, and may prescribe medicine to help lower high cholesterol.