Thoracic Aortic Aneurysms

The aorta is the largest artery in the human body, running through the chest (thoracic aorta) and the abdomen (abdominal aorta). When one of the artery walls in the chest weakens and bulges outward, it’s referred to as a thoracic aortic aneurysm. These aneurysms can lead to serious complications such as aortic tearing (dissection), atherosclerotic plaque buildup and blood clot (thrombus) formation. And if a thoracic aortic aneurysm bursts, it can cause life-threatening internal bleeding.

Causes of Thoracic Aortic Aneurysms

The most common cause of thoracic aortic aneurysms is atherosclerosis, which occurs when plaque buildup causes an artery to narrow and harden. The following risk factors can make someone more likely to develop atherosclerosis:

  • Having high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • Being overweight
  • Smoking
  • Having a family history of cardiovascular or peripheral vascular disease

Certain connective tissue disorders—such as Loeys-Dietz syndrome and Marfan syndrome—can weaken the walls of the aorta and increase the chances of developing a thoracic aortic aneurysm.

Other potential causes of these aneurysms include infection, inflammation (vasculitis), a traumatic injury to the chest (such as one resulting from a car accident or a fall) and genetics (studies suggest that many aneurysms are inherited).

Symptoms of Thoracic Aortic Aneurysms

In many instances, thoracic aortic aneurysms don’t cause any noticeable symptoms. As such, many of these aneurysms go undetected until they rupture. When thoracic aortic aneurysms do cause symptoms, some of the most common ones include:

  • Pain within the jaw, neck, chest or back
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing

Diagnosing Thoracic Aortic Aneurysms

If a physician suspects that a patient might have a thoracic aortic aneurysm, he or she will likely order one or more of the following tests to confirm the diagnosis:

  • Abdominal ultrasound
  • Angiogram
  • Chest X-ray
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Echocardiogram
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan

Treatment for Thoracic Aortic Aneurysms

The cardiovascular experts at Tampa General Hospital consider a number of factors when determining how to treat a thoracic aortic aneurysm, including:

  • The size of the aneurysm
  • Where the aneurysm is located
  • The patient’s overall health

Some of the methods commonly used to treat thoracic aortic aneurysms include:

  • Periodically monitoring the aneurysm using imaging tests such as CT and MRI scans
  • Recommending certain lifestyle changes such as losing excess weight, eating a nutritious diet, quitting smoking and managing underlying conditions
  • Prescribing medication to lower blood pressure or cholesterol
  • Performing surgery to remove and replace the affected portion of the aorta or to redirect blood flow away from the aneurysm