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HEALTHY LIVING: Know the signs of an aortic aneurysm before it's too late

By Kristofer A. Bagdasarian, MD, FACS

January 01, 2018

The heart is the most important muscle in the human body and is connected to the aorta, which is the largest artery in the body. The aorta carries oxygen-rich blood away from the heart to all parts of the body. And although the aorta is a tough, durable blood vessel, its walls can weaken and bulge in what is known as an aortic aneurysm.

If the aneurysm grows too large, it can burst and cause dangerous bleeding or even death. Some aortic aneurysms burst while others do not. Often as part of an aortic aneurysm, blood is forced away from the organs and tissues causing such problems as heart attacks, kidney damage and stroke.

There are two types of aortic aneurysms: thoracic aortic aneurysms which occur in the chest, and abdominal aortic aneurysms which occur in the belly.

Thoracic aortic aneurysms

Thoracic aortic aneurysms are often genetic and can be caused by:

  • High blood pressure
  • Infections
  • Plaque buildup in the arteries
  • High cholesterol
  • Trauma

Unfortunately, the symptoms of a thoracic aortic aneurysm often don’t present until the aneurysm becomes too large. As the aneurysm grows, patients may notice some of the signs including:

  • Chest or back pain
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Constant coughing

Your primary care physician or a vascular surgeon can diagnose a thoracic aortic aneurysm via an X-ray, echocardiogram, CT scan or an ultrasound. As part of an annual physical, you should ask your doctor if you are at risk for a thoracic aortic aneurysm. If there is a family history, I would recommend a routine screening. Additionally, your doctor may prescribe medications to lower your cholesterol and reduce your blood pressure.

The majority of thoracic aneurysm cases are treated with a stent graft which is much less invasive than an open surgical procedure. A graft is a man-made tube that replaces the damaged part of the aorta and makes that section of the aorta stronger. This is a newer technique that allows us to do these procedures with smaller incisions which result in faster recovery times.

Abdominal aortic aneurysms

Abdominal aortic aneurysms occur in the portion of the aorta that passes through the belly. Some of symptoms include:

  • Back pain
  • A deep pain on the side of the abdomen
  • A throbbing sensation near the naval

If the aneurysm ruptures, you may feel sick to your stomach or suddenly develop an intense pain in your back or abdomen. You also may vomit and become sweaty or dizzy. If these symptoms suddenly occur, you should seek immediate medical attention or call 911.

Although the precise causes of abdominal aortic aneurysms are not known, a few things that can contribute including hardening of the arteries, smoking, high blood pressure and genetic/family history.

Blood clots often accompany an abdominal aneurysm. Small blood clots can form near the aneurysm, break off and dangerously flow to the legs, kidneys and other organs.

Abdominal aortic aneurysms can sometimes be detected during a routine exam. If your doctor finds a bulge - even a small one - you should monitor this so that it does not get larger. If the size of the aneurysm increases, you may require surgery.

Dr. Kristofer A. Bagdasarian and Dr. Khubaib Y. Mapara see patients in their offices at Bristol Hospital located at 25 Newell Road, Suite D28. To learn more about vascular disease and our surgeons, please visit www.bristolhospital.org/Services/Vascular-Surgery. Drs. Bagdasarian and Mapara are members of the medical staff of the Bristol Hospital Multi-Specialty Group, and the Saint Francis Medical Group. Call 860-582-1220 for their office.