The largest blood vessel in the body, the aorta begins at the heart, curves slightly upward toward the neck and then travels straight down through the center of the chest and abdomen. Its function is to transport oxygen-rich blood from the left ventricle of the heart to other parts of the body.
Normally strong and flexible, the aortic walls are under constant pressure from the blood that continually flows within them. An abdominal aortic aneurysm occurs when a portion of the wall of the lower (descending) aorta begins to weaken and balloon outward. As the weakened wall deteriorates, the risk of an aortic rupture increases. A ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm is a medical emergency that can cause life-threatening bleeding.
What Causes an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm?
One of the main risk factors for aortic aneurysms is advanced age. Over time, the aortic walls naturally harden and lose elasticity, becoming more prone to rupture. Other risk factors include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- High cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia)
- Hardening of the aortic walls (atherosclerosis)
- Infections, such as endocarditis
- Chronic inflammation
- A traumatic injury to the chest or stomach
- Certain genes, such as ACTA2, FBN1, MYH11 and TFFBR1/2
What Are the Symptoms of an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm?
Intact abdominal aortic aneurysms are often asymptomatic and may be detected in a diagnostic imaging scan, such as a chest X-ray, performed for an unrelated reason. Symptoms such as abdominal pain and a pulsing sensation in the stomach may occur if the aneurysm expands and presses on nearby tissues.
If an abdominal aortic aneurysm ruptures, more severe symptoms, including intense pain, dizziness, nausea and a precipitous drop in blood pressure, may come on very suddenly.
How Is an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm Diagnosed?
If an aortic aneurysm is suspected, a physician will typically order a specialized procedure, such as an echocardiogram, a CT scan or an MRI scan, as part of the diagnostic process. Because advanced age and smoking are major risk factors for aortic aneurysms, preventive screening may be considered for a male smoker who is age 60 or older.
How Is an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm Treated?
The goal of aneurysm treatment is to prevent rupture. Common options include medical monitoring, open abdominal surgery and endovascular repair surgery. The optimal treatment approach can vary depending on the size of the aneurysm and other factors.
At Tampa General Hospital, one of Florida’s top aortic centers by volume and outcomes, vascular experts take a multidisciplinary approach to care. Advanced technologies allow us to treat abdominal aortic aneurysms safely and efficiently.