The largest artery in the body is called the aorta. It carries oxygen-rich blood away from the heart to the chest, where it is referred to as the thoracic aorta. It is called the abdominal aorta when it reaches the abdomen.
The abdominal aorta supplies blood to the liver, spleen, stomach, intestines, kidneys and spinal cord. The aorta then splits into two branches, called the iliac arteries, just below the navel to carry blood into each leg.
Under normal circumstances, the aorta is about one inch in diameter. But sometimes a weak area in the wall of the abdominal aorta can bulge out, like a balloon that has been squeezed. This bulge is called an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA). The aneurysm can burst if it gets too big, causing severe internal bleeding that can lead to shock and even death.
Most of the 1.5 to 2 million Americans who have an abdominal aortic aneurysm are not aware of this threat to their lives. Unfortunately, the survival rate for a ruptured AAA is very low, only about 10 to 20 percent.
People at risk for developing AAA are those who smoke, have a family history of the condition, are male or have high blood pressure. The condition usually does not cause any symptoms, but as it develops it may trigger abdominal pain, lower back pain and a pulsing feeling in the abdomen. AAA can be treated, and even cured, when detected in the early stages.
Physical examination and ultrasound screening for AAA is recommended for men between the ages of 65 and 70 who have ever smoked. An abdominal aortic aneurysm may feel like a soft mass in the abdomen that seems to pulse like a heartbeat or be detected during an ultrasound.
If AAA is diagnosed, a computerized tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging or anteriogram may be necessary to determine the size and location of the aneurysm.
Abdominal aortic aneurysms are treated one of three ways, watchful waiting, open surgical aneurysm repair, or endovascular stent graft. Watchful waiting usually is recommended if the aneurysm is less than two inches in diameter. Regular ultrasounds or CT scans may be ordered every six to 12 months to closely monitor the aneurysm for any signs of change.
Open surgical aneurysm repair involves replacing the weakened part of the aorta with a graft that is attached above and below the aneurysm to act as a bridge for the blood flow. An endovascular stent graft requires the placement of a stent through a catheter that has been guided to the aneurysm site to redirect blood flow.
A ruptured AAA is a life-threatening situation that requires immediate medical attention. Signs of a burst AAA include sudden, severe back or abdominal pain, paleness, nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, or signs of shock, such as dizziness, fainting, sweating and rapid heartbeat.
Delray Medical Center offers complimentary heart health screenings every month. To register, please call 1-888-7-DELRAY.
For more information about AAA, talk with your doctor or call 1-866-358-4DOC for a free referral to a specialist near you.