We are all pretty aware of just how much we rely on our heart, and why taking care of our heart health is so important.
But how much do you know about your aorta—your body’s largest artery, the one that carries the oxygenated blood away from your heart and toward all the other parts of your body?
“Just like we could not survive for long if our heart were to stop beating, if the aorta ruptures or tears (dissects), that is likewise a catastrophic medical event,” said Daniel Torrent, M.D., an aortic and endovascular surgeon with the Carilion Clinic Aortic Center.
“This is most likely to happen when there is an abnormal enlargement or bulging of the aorta due to a weakness in the aortic wall, called an aortic aneurysm,” he explained.
“When an enlargement develops in the chest area, it is called a thoracic aortic aneurysm, and when it develops in the section of the aorta that runs through the abdomen, it is called an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Some patients can have a combination of the two, called a thoracoabdominal aneurysm.”
Because aortic aneurysms often grow slowly over a long period of time and generally do not cause any major symptoms up until the point that they rupture or dissect, many people don’t realize that they have one.
That’s why it’s important to know if you have any risk factors, so you can talk with your health care provider about whether you should be screened for an aneurysm.
Keep reading to learn about risk factors and screening for aortic aneurysms, treatment options, signs that you should seek immediate medical attention and ways you can help keep your aorta healthy.
Risk Factors and Screening
Some risk factors for aortic aneurysms are lifestyle-related and, at least to some degree, within our control. For example, smoking is the most important behavior related to aortic aneurysms, according to the CDC.
But in other cases, and more commonly with thoracic aortic aneurysms, some kind of genetic abnormality causes the wall of the aorta to weaken and enlarge.
Be aware of the following risk factors for aortic aneurysms:
- A family history of aneurysms, or of sudden unexplained deaths
- A history of smoking
- Atherosclerosis (hardened arteries)
- Certain genetic conditions like Marfans, Loeys-Dietz or Ehlers-Danlos syndromes
- Having a bicuspid aortic heart valve (sometimes identified in childhood due to a heart murmur)
- High blood pressure
Talk with your health care provider if any of these apply to you. He or she may recommend a screening for aortic aneurysms. Screening can be done with one of several imaging technologies, such as ultrasound, CT scan or MRI.
If an aortic aneurysm is found, next steps depend on its size, says Dr. Torrent. A smaller aneurysm may be monitored with regular imaging, and treatment may not be necessary until (and if) it grows to a certain size. That size depends on the location of the aneurysm.
Surgery can prevent an aneurysm from rupturing or dissecting. The location of the aneurysm determines whether it requires traditional open surgery; some aneurysms may be repaired using a minimally invasive, endovascular procedure.
According to Dr. Torrent, a planned procedure to repair an aortic aneurysm is safer than an emergency procedure performed after the aneurysm has ruptured or dissected, and is more likely to have a positive outcome.
When to Seek IMMEDIATE Medical Attention
Call 911 or seek emergency medical attention immediately if you experience these symptoms, which could be signs of an aortic aneurysm rupturing or dissecting, says Dr.Torrent:
- Sharp, tearing, and/or severe pain in the chest or abdomen or flank
- Numbness or weakness in any limb
- Temporary loss of consciousness
- Sudden unexplained drop in blood pressure
Keeping Your Aorta Healthy
The best ways to help keep your aorta healthy are the same ways you keep the rest of your cardiovascular system healthy, says Dr. Torrent. They include:
- Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels and healthy blood pressure numbers
- Regular aerobic exercise and a healthy diet
- Not smoking, or quitting if you do
Talk with your health care provider if you need help making healthy changes in these areas.