Although aneurysms contribute to more than 25,000 deaths in the United States each year, it’s actually possible to live with and successfully treat an aortic aneurysm.
Early detection is vital, however. Armed with the right information, you can help to prevent, detect and manage an aortic aneurysm.
What Is an Aortic Aneurysm?
The aorta is the main artery in your body that moves blood away from your heart — the highway that disperses oxygen-rich blood. An aneurysm occurs when an artery wall weakens, causing it to bulge or dilate abnormally. When blood moves through the aorta, the aortic wall is stretched and weakened, high blood pressure stresses the aortic wall even more, causing a tear.
The two types of aortic aneurysms are:
- Abdominal: The most common type of aortic aneurysm, an abdominal aneurysm is when the aorta weakens because of increased blood pressure. This vulnerability can lead to a ruptured vessel, causing internal bleeding below your diaphragm.
- Thoracic: A thoracic aneurysm occurs in the part of the aorta that runs through your chest cavity and can be hard to detect.
Aneurysms develop over time, and while the dilation itself isn’t fatal, a ruptured artery can result in life-threatening internal bleeding.
How Aortic Aneurysms are Discovered
Aortic aneurysms can be hard to find because early symptoms often don’t exist. It’s only until the blood vessel ruptures that symptoms appear.
If aortic aneurysms run in your family, your cardiologist may screen you to check for one. However, weaknesses in the aorta are typically discovered while your doctor is performing physical checkups and testing for other issues. Several tests can detect aneurysms:
- Chest X-rays
- CT scans
Most aneurysms come with few warnings signs until tearing or rupturing occurs. When that happens, these symptoms can emerge:
Chest, abdominal, back, neck or jaw pain
- Clammy skin
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling weak on one side of your body
- Hoarse throat
Aortic aneurysms can be confused with symptoms of a heart attack. Seeking immediate medical attention is vital if you experience any of these warning signs.
“Watchful Waiting”: What It Is and Which Patients Are Candidates
“Watchful waiting” describes the process of monitoring an aneurysm over time. Cardiologists rely on various imaging tools to keep track of an aneurysm’s size and progress. At Penn Medicine, we have two large aortic surveillance clinics – the Thoracic Aortic Program (established in 2004) and our Bicuspid Aortic Valve Center (established in 2018). Both programs see more than 1000 aortic surveillance patients each year.
If you have a family history of aneurysms, you may be a candidate for watchful waiting. You can also be under watch if you have any of the following:
- Genetic conditions that affect connective tissues
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol or atherosclerosis (build-up of plaque)
If you have an aortic aneurysm, make sure to partner with your doctor for proper monitoring and be aware of any changes you feel.
Living with an Aortic Aneurysm: Lifestyle Adjustments You Can Make
Yes, you can live with an aortic aneurysm, and there are many ways to prevent dissection (splitting of the blood vessel wall that causes blood to leak) or worse, a rupture (a burst aneurysm).
Some aortic aneurysms are hereditary or congenital, such as bicuspid aortic valve, infection or inflammatory conditions. Others relate to personal habits. Harmful activities and health issues for someone with an aortic aneurysm include:
Smoking accounts for about 75% of abdominal aortic aneurysms. To help avoid an aortic aneurysm, there are several lifestyle adjustments you can make:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet
- Manage stress
- Get regular exercise
- Quit smoking
Altering your lifestyle habits can result in positive and long-lasting results. Taking prescribed medications, such as beta blockers, can also reduce your risk of an aortic aneurysm.
When to Have Surgery
Not all weakened or bulging vessels require immediate surgery. Aneurysms are rated by size — the larger the aneurysm the greater chance it will rupture. And of course, if the aortic vessel bursts, immediate surgery is vital. While lifestyle changes and medications are ideal for prevention, surgery can replace or repair the damaged area.