A thoracic aortic aneurysm, an abnormal bulge in a weakened wall of the aorta in the chest area, can cause a variety of symptoms and often life-threatening complications. Due to the severe risks it presents, timely diagnosis and treatment of a thoracic aneurysm are critical.
What is the best treatment for a thoracic aortic aneurysm?
The decision on how to best treat a thoracic aneurysm of the aorta depends on its size and rate of its growth, location, and your overall health. The risk of rupture increases when the aneurysm is more significant than about twice the average diameter of a healthy aorta blood vessel.
If a thoracic aneurysm is small and causes no symptoms, your physician may recommend “watchful waiting,” which includes:
Close monitoring of the aneurysm with CT or MRI scans every six months
Blood pressure medication to control high blood pressure, and decrease pressure on the weakened area of the aneurysm
Restriction of some physical activities. Heavy lifting should be avoided due to increased pressure on the aorta, which may put an aneurysm at risk of rupture
Many factors, including: determine the decision to treat a thoracic aneurysm with surgery
- The presence of symptoms, including chest and back pain, and pain in the jaw, neck and upper back
- If the aneurysm is growing more than 1 centimeter (cm) per year
- Signs of an aortic dissection, including sudden, severe sharp tearing pain in the chest or back
- The age of the patient and the patient’s overall medical condition
New evidence has shown that the size of the aneurysm in addition to a patient’s height plays a vital role in the decision for surgery. While 5 centimeters is the size most aneurysms are considered for surgery published studies have found that a patient’s height and their aneurysm’s size strongly correlates with the need for surgery. For instance, a patient who is over 6 feet tall with a 5-centimeter aneurysm would be recommended for surgery. A patient who is 5 feet 7 inches with a thoracic aneurysm of 4.7 centimeters is a candidate for surgery due to their risk of rupture.
Due to highly individualized characteristics guiding the decision for surgery, it is best that a physician closely monitor your thoracic aneurysm regularly.
To understand how the surgery is used to treat a thoracic aneurysm, it is best to know where the aorta is located and how it functions.
The aorta is shaped like an old-fashioned walking cane with the stem of the curved handle coming out of the heart and curling through the aortic arch, which supplies branches of vessels to the head and arms.
Once the aorta descends through the chest cavity into the abdomen, it separates off to provide blood to the abdominal organs and both legs.
How is a thoracic aortic aneurysm treated with surgery?
The current standard surgical treatment of a thoracic aortic aneurysm is the open-chest approach. The main purpose of open-chest surgery to treat a thoracic aneurysm is to replace the weakened portion of the aorta with a fabric tube, called a graft.
Repairing a thoracic aneurysm is surgically complicated and requires an experienced thoracic surgical team. However, neglecting the aneurysm presents a higher risk.
To help ensure the best outcome of thoracic aneurysm surgery, you will undergo a thorough preoperative evaluation to check for atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries that damages the artery’s walls) in the body’s blood vessels.
The preoperative evaluation may also include:
- Screening of left ventricular (the heart’s left side) function and an assessment for the presence of coronary artery disease
- Ultrasound examination
- Pulmonary function testing with a spirometer to measure lung function
How is surgery for a thoracic aortic aneurysm completed?
Thoracic aneurysms occur above the diaphragm, including in the ascending aorta, the aorta arch, and the descending thoracic aorta.
The location of a thoracic aneurysm determines many factors, including where the incision for surgery is made. If the aneurysm is close to the aortic valve, an incision in the front of the chest (median sternotomy) may be used. An aneurysm close to the aortic valve may also require the valve to be repaired or replaced.
If surgery is needed on the aortic arch, the procedure is approached from the front chest area. A standard incision for an aneurysm in the descending thoracic aorta is made on the left side of the chest (left thoracotomy).Total aorta repair can be done as one operation in some patients.
After making an incision in the chest, your thoracic surgeon will replace the weakened portion of the aorta with a graft. The graft is made of a material that is stronger than the weakened aorta, allowing blood to pass through the vessel without causing a bulge.
Many patients who have a thoracic aneurysm may also have heart valve disease, disease of the aorta next to the heart, or extensive aorta disease, leading into the abdomen or other major arteries. For those thoracic aneurysms that are extensive or more complex, heart surgery is sometimes performed at the same time as an open-chest aneurysm repair. Also, thoracic surgeons may work alongside vascular surgeons to complete a complicated procedure involving the entire aorta or peripheral blood vessels.