Your Aorta: The Pulse of Life

Updated:Nov 17,2016

Understanding The Aorta and Its Job in Circulation

The aorta is the main artery that carries blood away from your heart to the rest of your body. After the blood leaves the heart through the aortic valve, it travels through the aorta, making a cane-shaped curve that connects with other major arteries to deliver oxygen-rich blood to the brain, muscles, and other cells.

The aorta is more than an inch wide in some places and has three layers:

  • The inner layer (or intima)
  • The middle layer (or media)
  • The outer layer (or adventitia)

When a problem occurs with the aorta, the heart and the entire body’s blood supply can be jeopardized.

When Aortic Problems Occur

 

An aortic aneurysm is a weakened or bulging area on the wall of the aorta.

A problem with the aorta can quickly become a serious medical emergency. Serious problems with the aorta may include:

 

  • Aortic Aneurysm – which may occur in either the chest (called a thoracic aneurysm) or anywhere along the aorta such as lower in the abdomen (called an abdominal aortic aneurysm)
     
  • Aortic Dissection

What is an Aortic Aneurysm?

 

An aortic dissection is a split between the layers of the aorta that traps blood coming from the heart.

An aortic aneurysm is a weakened or bulging area on the wall of the aorta, which may occur anywhere along its length.

 

Problems from aortic aneurysms happen in two ways:

  1. Rupture: The weakened or ballooned area may develop a hole, called a rupture, that allows blood to leak or burst out into the body.
     
  2. Dissection: The blood pumped forcefully through the aorta can split the layers of the artery wall, allowing a build-up of blood to continually leak into the space, which further splits the artery wall.
     

What are the Symptoms of an Aortic Emergency?

Some of the symptoms, such as chest pain and jaw pain, are generally associated with a heart attack, but the sudden stabbing, radiating pain, fainting, difficulty breathing, and sometimes even sudden weakness on one side are also symptoms of an aortic event. Because the aorta travels from above the heart to below the navel, severe pain may occur at any place along this major vessel. Additional accompanying symptoms of a rupture may include clammy skin, nausea and vomiting, or even shock.

Aneurysms and dissections of the aorta are life-threatening conditions and should be treated as a medical emergency.

How is an Aortic Aneurysm or Dissection Treated?

There are two main treatment options for aortic dissections and aneurysms: surgery and/or medications.

  1. Surgery to repair or replace the injured section of the aorta.
  2. Medication to lower blood pressure and reduce risks of rupture. Medications would not be a treatment option in an emergency situation, but they may be appropriate if danger from a rupture does not appear to be imminent.

Hear Robert Epps describe his frightening experience with aortic dissection and how he wants everyone to be aware of the symptoms:

Stats About Aortic Aneurysm and Dissection

Impact: According to the CDC’s most recent annual statistics, aortic aneurysms were the main cause of 9,846 deaths and a contributing cause in more than 16,147 deaths in the United States.

Risk: About two-thirds of people who have an aortic dissection are male.

Besides advanced age and genetics or family history, people who have the following conditions may be at higher risk for an aortic aneurysm or dissection:

  • High blood pressure: the increased force of blood can weaken the artery walls
  • Genetic conditions, such as Marfan’s Syndrome: that causes problems in the body’s ability to make healthy connective tissue
  • High cholesterol or atherosclerosis: a build-up of plaque may cause increased inflammation in and around the aorta and other blood vessels
  • Inflamed arteries: Trauma such as car accidents, certain diseases, and conditions like vasculitis can cause the body’s blood vessels to become inflamed
  • Smoking: People with a history of smoking are 3 to 5 times more likely to develop an aortic aneurysm
     

Screening: The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that men aged 65–75 years who have ever smoked should get an ultrasound screening for abdominal aortic aneurysms, even if they have no symptoms.

People living with aortic disease or other heart-related conditions can improve their odds for a longer, healthier life. It’s important to:

  • Report any symptoms immediately.
  • Get regular check-ups.
  • Always take care of your overall heart health.

Additional resources

This content was last reviewed June 2015


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