Aortic Aneurysm Causes, Symptoms and Concerns
UW Health heart surgeons have substantial expertise in the evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of aortic aneurysms.
Up to 80 percent of aortic aneurysms are caused by "hardening of the arteries" (atherosclerosis). Atherosclerosis can develop when cholesterol and fat build up inside the arteries. High blood pressure (hypertension), cigarette smoking, family history and age also contribute to atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis accelerates the breakdown of collagen and elastin, two proteins that provide strength, structure and elasticity to the wall of the aorta. Over time, this causes the walls of the aorta to weaken and become damaged. Elevated blood pressure through the aorta can then cause the aortic wall to expand and bulge.
Other less common disorders can also cause an aneurysm to develop:
- Inflammatory diseases, such as Takayasu's arteritis, may block the flow of blood through the aorta and weaken the aortic wall
- Genetic connective tissue disorders, such as Marfan Syndrome or Ehler-Danlos syndrome, can also cause the aortic wall to weaken and possibly rupture or tear
- Aortic aneurysms can also be caused by physical trauma to the chest or abdomen
Symptoms and Concerns
Aortic aneurysms often have no symptoms at first; in fact, many are first discovered during an examination for another condition. If the aneurysm is pressing against nearby tissues, patients may notice a deep, steady pain in the back, abdomen or groin. Abdominal aortic aneurysms may also cause a pulsing sensation in the abdomen.
If the aneurysm continues to expand, it can rupture. The layers of the aortic wall can also separate (aortic dissection). This produces severe, tearing pain in the chest, back or abdomen.
The potential for rupture is the most serious risk associated with an aortic aneurysm. A ruptured aortic aneurysm can cause life-threatening internal bleeding and/or a stroke.
According to the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, approximately 15,000 people die each year from a ruptured aortic aneurysm. It is the 13th leading cause of death in the United States. As many as two-thirds of patients who suffer a ruptured aortic aneurysm will die even before reaching the hospital.
Blood clots can also form inside the walls of aortic aneurysms. If a part of a clot becomes dislodged, it can travel to other arteries and block blood flow.
UW Health offers a comprehensive Aortic Monitoring Program to detect and treat aortic aneurysms. This helps patients avoid emergency aortic surgery, which is five to 10 times riskier than planned surgery.