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Aortic dissection

Aortic aneurysm - dissecting; Chest pain - aortic dissection; Thoracic aortic aneurysm - dissection

 

Aortic dissection is a serious condition in which there is a tear in the wall of the major artery carrying blood out of the heart (aorta). As the tear extends along the wall of the aorta, blood can flow in between the layers of the blood vessel wall (dissection). This can lead to aortic rupture or decreased blood flow (ischemia) to organs.

Causes

 

When it leaves the heart, the aorta first moves up through the chest towards the head (the ascending aorta). It then bends or arches, and finally moves down through the chest and abdomen (the descending aorta).

Aortic dissection most often happens because of a tear or damage to the inner wall of the aorta. This very often occurs in the chest (thoracic) part of the artery, but it may also occur in the abdominal aorta.

When a tear occurs, it creates 2 channels:

  • One in which blood continues to travel
  • Another where blood stays still

If the channel with non-traveling blood gets bigger, it can push on other branches of the aorta. This can narrow the other branches and reduce blood flow through them.

An aortic dissection may also cause abnormal widening or ballooning of the aorta (aneurysm).

The exact cause is unknown, but more common risks include:

  • Aging
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Blunt trauma to the chest, such as hitting the steering wheel of a car during an accident
  • High blood pressure

Other risk factors and conditions linked to aortic dissection include:

  • Bicuspid aortic valve
  • Coarctation (narrowing) of the aorta
  • Connective tissue disorders (such as Marfan syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome) and rare genetic disorders
  • Heart surgery or procedures
  • Pregnancy
  • Swelling of the blood vessels due to conditions such as arteritis and syphilis

Aortic dissection occurs in about 2 out of every 10,000 people. It can affect anyone, but is most often seen in men ages 40 to 70.

 

Symptoms

 

In most cases, the symptoms begin suddenly, and include severe chest pain. The pain may feel like a heart attack.

  • Pain can be described as sharp, stabbing, tearing, or ripping.
  • It is felt below the chest bone, and then moves under the shoulder blades or to the back.
  • Pain can move to the shoulder, neck, arm, jaw, abdomen, or hips.
  • The pain changes position, often moving to the arms and legs as the aortic dissection gets worse.

Symptoms are caused by a decrease of blood flowing to the rest of the body, and can include:

  • Anxiety and a feeling of doom
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Heavy sweating (clammy skin)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pale skin (pallor)
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Shortness of breath and trouble breathing when lying flat (orthopnea)

Other symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Stroke symptoms
  • Swallowing difficulties from pressure on the esophagus

 

Exams and Tests

 

The health care provider will take your family history and listen to your heart, lungs, and abdomen with a stethoscope. The exam may find:

  • A "blowing" murmur over the aorta, heart murmur, or other abnormal sound
  • A difference in blood pressure between the right and left arms, or between the arms and legs
  • Low blood pressure
  • Signs resembling a heart attack
  • Signs of shock, but with normal blood pressure

Aortic dissection or aortic aneurysm may be seen on:

  • Aortic angiography
  • Chest x-ray
  • Chest MRI
  • CT scan of chest with dye
  • Doppler ultrasonography (occasionally performed)
  • Echocardiogram
  • Transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE)

Blood work to rule out a heart attack is needed.

 

Treatment

 

Aortic dissection is a life-threatening condition and needs to be treated right away.

  • Dissections that occur in the part of the aorta that is leaving the heart (ascending) are treated with surgery.
  • Dissections that occur in other parts of the aorta (descending) may be managed with surgery or medicines.

Two techniques may be used for surgery:

  • Standard, open surgery. This requires a surgical incision that is made in the chest or abdomen.
  • Endovascular aortic repair. This surgery is done without any major surgical incisions.

Drugs that lower blood pressure may be prescribed. These drugs may be given through a vein (intravenously). Beta-blockers are the first drugs of choice. Strong pain relievers are very often needed.

If the aortic valve is damaged, valve replacement is needed. If the heart arteries are involved, a coronary bypass is also performed.

 

Outlook (Prognosis)

 

Aortic dissection is life threatening. The condition can be managed with surgery if it is done before the aorta ruptures. Less than one half of people with a ruptured aorta survive.

Those who survive will need lifelong, aggressive treatment of high blood pressure. They will need to be followed up with CT scans every few months to monitor the aorta.

 

Possible Complications

 

Aortic dissection may decrease or stop the blood flow to many different parts of the body. This may result in short-term or long-term problems, or damage to the:

  • Brain
  • Heart
  • Intestines or bowels
  • Kidneys
  • Legs

 

When to Contact a Medical Professional

 

If you have symptoms of an aortic dissection or severe chest pain, call 911 or your local emergency number, or go to the emergency room as quickly as possible.

 

Prevention

 

Many cases of aortic dissection cannot be prevented.

Things you can do to reduce your risk include:

  • Treating and controlling hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
  • Keeping high blood pressure under control, especially if you are at risk for dissection
  • Taking safety precautions to prevent injuries that can cause dissections
  • If you have been diagnosed with Marfan or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, making sure you regularly follow-up with your provider

 

 

References

Braverman AC. Diseases of the aorta. In: Mann DL, Zipes DP, Libby P, Bonow RO, Braunwald E, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 57.

Conrad MF, Cambria RP. Aortic dissection. In: Cronenwett JL, Johnston W, eds. Rutherford's Vascular Surgery. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 138.

Lederle FA. Diseases of the aorta. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 78.

 
  • Aortic rupture, chest X-ray

    Aortic rupture, chest X-ray - illustration

    Aortic rupture (a tear in the aorta, which is the major artery coming from the heart) can be seen on a chest x-ray. In this case, it was caused by a traumatic perforation of the thoracic aorta. This is how the x-ray appears when the chest is full of blood (right-sided hemothorax) seen here as cloudiness on the left side of the picture.

    Aortic rupture, chest X-ray

    illustration

  • Aortic aneurysm

    Aortic aneurysm - illustration

    Abdominal aortic aneurysm involves a widening, stretching, or ballooning of the aorta. There are several causes of abdominal aortic aneurysm, but the most common results from atherosclerotic disease. As the aorta gets progressively larger over time there is increased chance of rupture.

    Aortic aneurysm

    illustration

  • Aortic dissection

    Aortic dissection - illustration

    Aortic dissection is a condition in which there is bleeding into and along the wall of the aorta (the major artery from the heart). This most often occurs because of a tear or damage to the inner wall of the artery. Although aortic dissection can affect anybody, it is most often seen in men 40 to 70 years old. Symptoms usually begin suddenly and require prompt medical attention.

    Aortic dissection

    illustration

    • Aortic rupture, chest X-ray

      Aortic rupture, chest X-ray - illustration

      Aortic rupture (a tear in the aorta, which is the major artery coming from the heart) can be seen on a chest x-ray. In this case, it was caused by a traumatic perforation of the thoracic aorta. This is how the x-ray appears when the chest is full of blood (right-sided hemothorax) seen here as cloudiness on the left side of the picture.

      Aortic rupture, chest X-ray

      illustration

    • Aortic aneurysm

      Aortic aneurysm - illustration

      Abdominal aortic aneurysm involves a widening, stretching, or ballooning of the aorta. There are several causes of abdominal aortic aneurysm, but the most common results from atherosclerotic disease. As the aorta gets progressively larger over time there is increased chance of rupture.

      Aortic aneurysm

      illustration

    • Aortic dissection

      Aortic dissection - illustration

      Aortic dissection is a condition in which there is bleeding into and along the wall of the aorta (the major artery from the heart). This most often occurs because of a tear or damage to the inner wall of the artery. Although aortic dissection can affect anybody, it is most often seen in men 40 to 70 years old. Symptoms usually begin suddenly and require prompt medical attention.

      Aortic dissection

      illustration

    Tests for Aortic dissection

     

       

      Review Date: 6/6/2016

      Reviewed By: Deepak Sudheendra, MD, RPVI, Assistant Professor of Interventional Radiology & Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, with an expertise in Vascular Interventional Radiology & Surgical Critical Care, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

      The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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