Aortic Aneurysm

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 the body.

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 an aneurysm.
  • 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 of syphilis.

What are the symptoms of an aortic aneurysm?

Many aortic aneurysms don’t produce any symptoms and as a result, are discovered by accident, for example during a routine physical check-up.

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 will rupture?

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 aneurysm?

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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