Your heart is the most important muscle in your body. During your lifetime it will pump enough blood to fill about three supertankers.
The aorta is the largest blood vessel in the body. Although your aorta is a tough, durable workhorse, sometimes its walls can weaken and bulge in what is called an aortic aneurysm. This could cause a leak that spills blood into your body.
Some aortic aneurysms burst, some don't. Others force blood flow away from your organs and tissues, causing problems, such as heart attacks, kidney damage, stroke, and even death.
Types of Aortic Aneurysms
There are two locations of aortic aneurysms. One, in the chest, is a thoracic aortic aneurysm. The other is in the abdomen and is called an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
Thoracic aortic aneurysm. Genes play a role in your chances of having an aortic aneurysm in your chest. Conditions that people can be born with that can affect the aorta include a bicuspid aortic valve, Marfan syndrome, and Loeys-Dietz syndrome.
Other causes for thoracic aneurysm might include:
- High blood pressure
- Plaque buildup in your arteries (atherosclerosis)
- High cholesterol
- Sudden traumatic injury
You might not know you have a thoracic aortic aneurysm because symptoms often don't show up until the aneurysm becomes large, or bursts. However, as it grows, you may notice some signs, including:
- Chest or back pain
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Shortness of breath
Your doctor often can diagnose a thoracic aortic aneurysm with tests such as an X-ray, an echocardiogram, CT scan, or ultrasound. It's also frequently monitored on an annual basis to assess for growth.
Routine screenings, especially for specific genetic conditions, can also help your doctor find out if your chances are higher. If they are, he might prescribe medications to lower your cholesterol and reduce your blood pressure.
If your aneurysm becomes a significant problem or grows rapidly in size, you might need surgery. Your doctor will replace the damaged section of your aorta with a human-made tube. Once it's in place, the graft will make that section of the aorta stronger.
An aortic aneurysm is a bulge in your aorta, the main blood vessel that carries blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Arteries usually have strong, thick walls. However, sometimes, certain illnesses or problems with your genes make them weak. The force of your blood constantly pushing against those weakened walls can make them swell. The result is a balloon-like bulge, called an aneurysm. If it grows too large and bursts, it can become an emergency. So it needs treatment as soon as possible.
Doctors can usually treat small aneurysms with medication. However, larger ones may need surgery.
There are two main types of surgery for aortic aneurysms:
- Open abdominal or open chest repair
- Endovascular repair
Open Abdominal or Open Chest Repair
This is the most common type of surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, but it's the most invasive, meaning that your doctor will go into your body to do it. Your surgeon replaces the weakened section of your aorta with a tube, or "graft," made of a special fabric.
First, you'll get general anesthesia. That means that you won't be awake for the procedure.
Then your surgeon will cut either in your belly or chest, depending on where your aneurysm is located.
Next, she'll restrict blood flow above and below the aneurysm using clamps. If the aneurysm is located just above the heart, a heart-lung machine will keep you breathing.
The surgeon will then remove the section of your aorta that is bulging and replace it with the fabric graft. The graft will allow blood to flow through the aorta without making it swell. Finally, she'll remove the clamps and let the blood to start flowing again.
The entire procedure can take anywhere from 2 to 6 hours, and you may have to stay in the hospital for up to a week to recover. You should be able to get back to your normal activities in about a month.