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Heart, section through the middle
Heart, section through the middle


Aortic rupture, chest X-ray
Aortic rupture, chest X-ray


Definition:

A thoracic aortic aneurysm is a widening (bulging) of part of the wall of the aorta, the body's largest artery.



Alternative Names:

Aortic aneurysm - thoracic; Syphilitic aneurysm; Aneurysm - thoracic aortic



Causes, incidence, and risk factors:

Thoracic aneurysms most often occur in the descending thoracic aorta. Others may appear in the ascending aorta or the aortic arch.

The most common cause of a thoracic aortic aneurysm is hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis ).

Other risk factors include:

  • Connective tissue disorders such as Marfan syndrome
  • Having high blood pressure for a long time
  • Previous dissection of the aorta
  • Syphilis
  • Trauma such as falls or motor vehicle accidents


Symptoms:

Most patients have no symptoms until the aneurysm begins to leak or expand. Chest or back pain may mean sudden widening or leakage of the aneurysm.



Signs and tests:

The physical examination is often normal. Most nonleaking thoracic aortic aneurysms are detected by tests -- usually a chest x-ray or a chest CT scan -- run for other reasons. A chest x-ray and chest CT scan show if the aorta is enlarged. A chest CT scan shows the size of the aorta and the exact location of the aneurysm.

An aortogram (a special set of x-ray images made when dye is injected into the aorta) can identify the aneurysm and any branches of the aorta that may be involved.



Treatment:

The treatment depends on the location of the aneurysm.

For patients with aneurysms of the ascending aorta or aortic arch, surgery to replace the aorta is recommended if the aneurysm is larger than 5 - 6 centimeters. The aorta is replaced with a fabric substitute.

This is major surgery that requires a heart-lung machine. If the aortic arch is involved, a specialized technique called "circulatory arrest" may be necessary. This involves a period without blood circulation while the patient is on life support.

There are two options for patients with aneurysms of the descending thoracic aorta. If the aneurysm is larger than 6 centimeters, major surgery is done to replace the aorta with a fabric substitute.

Endovascular stenting is a less invasive option. A stent is a tiny metal or plastic tube that is used to hold an artery open. Stents can be placed into the body without cutting the chest.

Instead, tiny, hollow tubes called catheters are inserted into the groin area. The stent is passed through the catheter and into the area of the aneurysm. Not all patients with descending thoracic aneurysms are candidates for stenting, however.



Support Groups:



Expectations (prognosis):

The long-term prognosis for patients with thoracic aortic aneurysm is determined by other medical problems such as heart disease and diabetes, which may have caused or contributed to the condition.



Complications:

Serious complications after aortic surgery can include:

  • Bleeding
  • Graft infection
  • Heart attack
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Kidney damage
  • Paralysis
  • Stroke

Death soon after the operation occurs in 5 - 10% of patients.

Complications after aneurysm stenting include damage to the leg, which may require another operation.



Calling your health care provider:

Tell your doctor if you have:

  • A family history of connective tissue disorders
  • Chest or back discomfort


Prevention:

To prevent atherosclerosis:

  • Control your blood pressure and blood lipid levels.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Exercise regularly.


References:

Safi HJ, Estrera AL, Miller CC 3rd, Azizzadeh A, Porat EE. Thoracic vasculature with emphasis on the thoracic aorta. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2008:chap 63.




Review Date: 5/6/2009
Reviewed By: Robert A. Cowles, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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