Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm

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 an 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.

People at risk for developing AAA are those who have smoked, have a family history of the condition or have high blood pressure. Men are four times more likely than women to develop AAA. 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. When detected in the early stages, AAA can be treated and even cured.

If you’re a male between the ages of 65 and 70 and have smoked, a physical examination and ultrasound screening for AAA is recommended. An ultrasound can detect the abdominal aortic aneurysm, which often feels like a soft mass in the abdomen and pulses with each heartbeat. 

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 ruptured 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.