An aneurysm is a bulge or "ballooning" in the wall of an artery. Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to other parts of the body. If an aneurysm grows large, it can burst and cause dangerous bleeding or even death.
The aorta is the largest artery in the body and runs from the heart’s left ventricle through the chest and down to the abdomen. It is the central highway through which oxygen-rich blood leaves the heart and travels to the rest of the body via other arteries that branch off the aorta. The aorta is an integral part of the circulatory system, so if an aneurysm forms and ruptures in this artery, it can quickly become a life-threatening situation.
Within Tampa General Hospital’s Heart & Vascular Institute, the Vascular Center of Excellence takes a specialized and multidisciplinary approach to the diagnosis and treatment of vascular conditions, including aortic aneurysm. In fact, we created our Aorta Program to highlight our expertise and ability to successfully treat these highly complex cases.
Where Do Most Aortic Aneurysms Occur?
An aortic aneurysm can occur anywhere along the aorta, which is about 1 foot in length and about 1 inch in wide in some places. However, most aneurysms occur in the infrarenal aorta, or the section of the aorta below the kidney in the abdominal region.
What Are the Types of Aortic Aneurysm?
There are two main types of aortic aneurysms:
- Thoracic aortic aneurysms (TAAs), which occur in the part of the aorta that runs through the chest
- Abdominal aortic aneurysms (AAAs), which occur in the part of the aorta that run through the abdomen
Additionally, thoracoabdominal aortic aneurysms (TAAAs) can form and span both the thoracic and abdominal regions.
Unfortunately, aortic aneurysms can develop silently and never produce any symptoms unless they rupture, making them difficult to detect. Symptoms may arise if the bulging aorta presses against surrounding organs or bursts.
In general, TAAs may lead to tenderness or pain in the chest, shortness of breath and a cough. AAAs may cause a pulsating feeling in the abdomen and pain in the belly or back that may radiate to the lower body.
When an aortic aneurysm ruptures, an individual will experience sudden and severe pain, an extreme drop in blood pressure and show signs of shock.
What Are the Risk Factors for Aortic Aneurysm?
Aortic aneurysms may be caused by several risk factors, including:
- Smoking, which is the most serious risk factor contributing to aortic aneurysms
- Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which weakens artery walls
- Hypertension, or high blood pressure, which puts stress on the aortic wall that can lead to bulging of the blood vessel wall
- Injury to the chest or abdomen that causes damage to the aorta, as in a car wreck or bad fall
- Congenital abnormalities such as Marfan syndrome or bicuspid valves present at birth that cause weakness of the artery walls
Some people are at a higher risk for aneurysms so it is important to know the risk factors. At-risk individuals include those who:
- Are 55 year of age or older
- Are male
- Have high blood pressure
- Have inherited diseases that cause weakening of the blood vessels
- Have a family history of aortic aneurysm
- Have atherosclerosis
Screening for Aortic Aneurysm
Individuals at higher risk for aneurysms should be screened regularly because aneurysms can develop and become larger before symptoms appear. Imaging tests are used to find aneurysms and most are found during tests performed for other reasons.
Screening for AAAs typically involves an ultrasound that confirms the presence and measures the diameter of an aneurysm. Screening for TAAs may involve an X-ray, an echocardiogram, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) or another diagnostic test. Screening is recommended for at-risk individuals between 65 and 75 years of age if they have a family history of the condition or are men who have smoked.
Treatment Options for Aortic Aneurysm at TGH
TGH’s Aorta Program is one of the premier aortic aneurysm treatment centers in the country. Our goal with treatment is to prevent the rupture of an aortic aneurysm, which is usually controlled via medications and medical monitoring. However, surgery may be required in cases where the aneurysm is large or is growing quickly.
TGH’s Aorta Program team includes board-certified vascular and cardiac surgeons, interventional radiologists and other highly experienced medical specialists who diagnose and treat a high volume of aortic aneurysm cases each year. As part of an academic teaching hospital partnered with the University of South Florida, our team is continually learning and adapting to the ever-changing treatment landscape. This allows us to implement technologically advanced aortic aneurysm surgery options that are safer for patients and reduce hospital stays and recovery time.
Additionally, TGH has been ranked as one of America’s Best Hospitals in Cardiology and Heart Surgery and Best Florida Hospital for Cardiology & Heart Surgery by U.S. News & World Report for 2020-2021.
For information about aortic aneurysm and the treatment options at Tampa General Hospital’s Heart and Vascular Institute Aorta Program or to refer a patient, call (813) 394-5554 Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
To transfer patients after business hours, call the TGH Transfer Center at 1-800-247-4472.