Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (AAA)

What is an abdominal aortic aneurysm?

The aorta is the main artery of the chest and abdomen that carries blood from the heart to all the body's vital organs, and eventually to the legs and feet. An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is a weakening in the wall of the aorta that causes a widening or "ballooning" of a portion of the artery itself, much like a weak area of an old-fashioned rubber inner tube. An aneurysm may continue to grow larger and, if not diagnosed and treated, can rupture, often causing death. In the United States, about 15,000 people a year die from a ruptured aortic aneurysm.

What are the risk factors?

If you are over the age of 60, have a family history of AAAs, suffer from high blood pressure or smoke you are at greatly increased risk. The risk increases with age and is more common in men than women. A family history is of special concern, so if any members in your immediate family have been diagnosed with an AAA, let your health care provider know and a screening exam can be arranged.

Symptoms

Most of the time there are no symptoms associated with AAAs and most are found by chance during routine physical examination, or the course of treatment or testing for other ailments. Occasionally, a person may experience low back pain or abdominal pain. Symptoms associated with an AAA require urgent attention.

Diagnosis

AAAs may be found when your health care provider examines you or by an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI. An arteriogram is sometimes needed to gain more information about the aneurysm and associate blood vessels.

This involves the injection of an x-ray visible dye so that more detailed films of the aneurysm can be obtained.

Treatment

After an AAA reaches a certain size, repair is undertaken. No treatment with medicines alone is sufficient for treating an AAA.

  • Surgery for AAAs has been performed for almost 50 years and is a successful and durable procedure. During surgery, the weakened portion of the aorta is replaced with a Dacron or Teflon graft that is carefully matched and sewn into place. The incision is on the abdomen or the flank.
  • New endovascular grafting technology allows the vascular surgeon to repair the AAA by delivering a graft inside the blood vessels through a small incision in each groin. Endovascular repair is not possible for every AAA.

What can be done to prevent an abdominal aortic aneurysm?

If you smoke, quit. Keep your blood pressure under control. Screening exams for AAA are available from most health care providers and you should avail yourself of those resources if you are at increased risk.