Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm

What is the aorta?

The aorta is the largest artery in the body and branches directly off the heart, coursing down the chest and through the abdomen. Like any artery, it can develop atherosclerosis, also known as plaque, which narrows the artery and decreases the amount of blood that can pass through it. However, there is another issue that develops in the aorta more commonly than anywhere else in the body: an aneurysm.

What is a AAA?

An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is a dilation/enlargement of the artery caused by a degenerative weakening in the artery wall. In the aorta an aneurysm occurs when the diameter is 3cm or greater. The biggest risk of having a AAA is the possibility of rupture/bursting. A ruptured aorta can be fatal, with massive internal bleeding. The larger the aneurysm becomes, the higher the risk that it will rupture. A small aneurysm of only 3cm for example has a very low risk of rupture. To determine when a AAA should be surgically fixed, surveillance ultrasounds are performed every 6 months or every year.

How do I know if I have a AAA?

Abdominal aortic aneurysms are most often asymptomatic, meaning they don’t cause any symptoms.  Part of the danger from a AAA is that most people don’t know they have one until it ruptures, at which point is causes severe back/abdominal pain and even loss of consciousness. Many AAAs are found by accident, or incidentally, when an imaging study is performed on the abdomen to look for something different. The best method to know if one has an aneurysm is to be proactive and have a AAA screening performed. Ultrasound screenings for a AAA are the most popular, and are used for surveillance if a AAA is found, and after a AAA is treated. Many doctors recommend that a AAA screening be performed on men over the age of 55, and women over 65, especially if the patient has a family history of aneurysms.

What increases my risk of having a AAA?

The most common risk factors that increase ones risk of forming a AAA are:

  • Age and gender (more common in men > 55 years)
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Family history of aneurysms