What is an aneurysm?
An aneurysm is an abnormal ballooning or swelling
of the wall of an artery, vein or the heart. It can be caused by injury, disease
or an abnormality present at birth. The swelling is often balloon-like.
An aneurysm that occurs as a result of a medical
illness is often an aortic aneurysm. The aorta is the main artery (blood vessel)
that carries oxygenated blood from the heart to smaller arteries throughout
An aortic aneurysm can occur in the thoracic area
(within the chest), however it is more likely to occur in the abdominal area
(within the abdomen). The majority of abdominal aneurysms are found just below
the renal arteries, which are responsible for supplying blood to the kidneys.
What causes an aortic aneurysm?
Aortic aneurysms can develop as a result of a number
of medical illnesses. The most common cause is atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is a narrowing of the arteries.
It is due to fatty deposits, known as plaque, building up along the inside walls
of the blood vessels. An aneurysm resulting from atherosclerosis is usually
found in the abdomen.
An abdominal aortic aneurysm may become life threatening
if it leaks or ruptures. It may also cause abdominal pain if it grows and presses
on nearby organs. This type of aneurysm is usually found in people over the
age of 60. Males are five times more likely to be affected than females.
Other types of aneurysm (these are very rare) include:
- Mycotic Aneurysm: This is when a serious bacterial
infection, such as salmonella, spreads into the bloodstream and attacks the
aorta. This bacterial attack may then result in an aneurysm in a part of the
aorta which has already been damaged by atherosclerosis.
- Rheumatic Aneurysm: If a person has a rheumatic
disorder, such as rheumatic arthritis, the illness may produce an inflammation
inside the wall of the aorta. This inflammation weakens the wall, producing
- Syphilitic Aneurysm: If a person has untreated
syphilis, the infection may spread to the part of the aorta nearest the heart,
resulting in a thoracic aortic aneurysm 15 to 30 years after the first signs
What are the symptoms of an
Many aortic aneurysms dont produce any symptoms
and as a result, are discovered by accident, for example during a routine physical
When symptoms do appear they can include pain in
the abdomen or back, nausea and vomiting or feeling full after eating a very
small amount of food. A person may also have an abnormally prominent abdominal
mass that pulsates.
How likely is it that an aneurysm
It depends on the size of the aneurysm. Rupture
is uncommon if the aneurysm is less then 5cm wide. (Only 1% to 2% will rupture
within five years if left untreated.)
If the aneurysm is over 5 cm, the risk of rupture
jumps to between 20% and 40% if left untreated for five years.
Rupture of an abdominal aneurysm is extremely serious.
It is usually preceded by excruciating pain in the back and abdomen. The rupture
may lead to profuse bleeding, which can cause shock. A person can die if they
are not immediately treated for this.
How can I help prevent an aortic
As atherosclerosis can cause an aortic aneurysm,
controlling the risk factors associated with that condition may reduce your
chances of getting an aneurysm.
Eating healthily, taking regular exercise and giving
up smoking can all reduce the chances of a person developing atherosclerosis
and therefore an aortic aneurysm.
To prevent a syphilitic aneurysm, always practise
safe sex or monogamy with an uninfected partner. If you suspect you have any
kind of sexually transmitted infection, visit your doctor immediately.
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