An aortic aneurysm happens when part of the aorta – the body’s largest blood vessel – gets weak and swells up. Read about abdominal aortic aneurysms and thoracic aortic aneurysms and how they can affect you.
What is an aortic aneurysm?
The aorta is the main and largest blood vessel in your body, and it carries blood from your heart to the rest of your body. If part of your aorta gets weak, it can swell to an abnormal size, known as an aortic aneurysm.
Types of aortic aneurysm
Aortic aneurysms can occur anywhere in the aorta, but most commonly, they affect the abdomen, known as an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA). If the aneurysm is in the chest, it’s called a thoracic aortic aneurysm.
Aortic aneurysm symptoms
There are often no visible signs of an aortic aneurysm. However, occasionally, the growing aneurysm can cause symptoms.
Symptoms of abdominal aortic aneurysm
Signs of an AAA can include:
- Pulsing in the tummy that feels like a heartbeat
- Constant tummy pain
- Constant lower back pain
The aneurysm can grow larger over time, and if it bursts, it can cause severe bleeding. If you experience the following symptoms, it could be a sign of a ruptured AAA, and you need to get medical attention immediately:
- Severe tummy or lower back pain that comes on very suddenly
- Feeling dizzy, faint or passing out
- Sweaty, clammy skin
- Fast heartbeat
Symptoms of thoracic aortic aneurysm
As a thoracic aortic aneurysm grows, it can push on the nerves and tissues in the chest and cause:
- Chest or back pain
- Breathlessness or breathing difficulties
- Problems with swallowing
Very severe, sharp pain in the chest and back that comes on suddenly can be a sign of a ruptured thoracic aortic aneurysm. It’s essential to see a doctor immediately as this can be fatal without treatment.
Who’s at risk of aortic aneurysm?
The following factors can put you at greater risk of having an aortic aneurysm:
- Older age
- Family history of aneurysms
- Cardiovascular diseases, like heart disease or a stroke
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Aortic aneurysms can go undetected until they grow large or burst and cause obvious symptoms. They’re often discovered during tests for another condition or at routine NHS screening for AAA, which is offered to men over the age of 65.
If your doctor suspects an aortic aneurysm, they may use the following tests to confirm it:
- Ultrasound – A scan that uses sound waves to get a picture of the affected area
- MRI – A scan that makes detailed images of the body using magnetic fields and radio waves
- CT scan – This scan produces clear images of your aorta so that doctors can see the size and shape of the aneurysm
Aortic aneurysm treatment
Treatment for aortic aneurysms depends on the size of the aneurysm and at what point it’s detected.
With a small to medium aortic aneurysm, you’ll need to go for regular ultrasound scans to monitor its size. It’s recommended that you also make positive changes to your lifestyle.
Lifestyle changes and self-help measures
If you have been diagnosed with a small or medium aortic aneurysm, or if you’re at a high risk of developing one, there are lots of things you can do to help prevent it developing:
- Stop smoking
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a healthy diet
- Don’t drink too much alcohol
- Manage any associated conditions, like high cholesterol and high blood pressure
Surgery for aortic aneurysm
In larger aortic aneurysms, surgery may be recommended to prevent it from getting too big or bursting. The same types of surgery will be used to treat a ruptured aortic aneurysm.
The main types of surgery are:
- Endovascular surgery – A synthetic graft is inserted into the artery using a catheter and fastened into the aneurysm to reinforce the weak section of the aorta
- Open surgery – Surgery to remove the damaged part of the aorta and replace it with a synthetic graft
- Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont
Lead GP at Livi
- Last updated: