Understanding Abdominal Aortic Aneurysms

What is an abdominal aortic aneurysm?

An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) occurs when the lower part of the abdominal aorta becomes swollen and enlarged. In many cases, AAA will display no symptoms, making it a potentially dangerous condition if left untreated.

The abdominal aorta is the largest artery, and it supplies oxygen-rich blood to the lower part of the body. If a weak area of the abdominal aorta expands or bulges, it can burst, causing severe internal bleeding and death. Immediate medical attention is crucial during this time.

How serious is an abdominal aortic aneurysm?

  • The small or slower-growing aneurysms have a lower risk of rupture, and it’s typically safer to monitor them with regular ultrasounds rather than to treat them with invasive surgery.
  • The large or faster-growing aneurysms have a higher risk of rupture, which can lead to internal bleeding and many complications. The larger the aneurysm, the more serious it can become; so it’s more likely that surgery will be necessary.

What causes abdominal aortic aneurysms?

Though the specific causes of abdominal aortic aneurysms is still unknown, AAA can develop from contributing factors like:

Tobacco use

Tobacco use can increase your risk of aortic aneurysms by contributing to the buildup of fatty plaques in your arteries, as well as causing high blood pressure. The use of tobacco can also speed up aneurysm growth.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure puts excess pressure on the blood vessel walls, creating the perfect environment for an aneurysm to grow.

Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)

Buildup of fat and other substances in the blood vessel lining can also put extra pressure on the walls of the blood vessels, making it more likely for an aneurysm to grow.

Infection in the aorta

Though a rarity, serious infections in the aorta or arteries can sometimes cause AAA.

Who is at risk? You are more likely to develop AAA if you:

  • Are over the age of 60
  • Are male
  • Are overweight
  • Have a sedentary job or lifestyle
  • Smoke or use tobacco products
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Have high cholesterol
  • Have a family history of AAA
  • Have diabetes
  • Have experienced abdominal damage
  • Have atherosclerosis

Symptoms of AAA

AAA is usually asymptomatic and detected by accident or when it expands or ruptures. Some symptoms of a ruptured AAA include:

  • Sudden, intense and persistent abdominal or back pain
  • Pain that radiates to your back or legs
  • Sweatiness
  • Clamminess
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fast pulse
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Shortness of breath

At your checkup

To diagnose AAA, your doctor will examine your abdomen and feel the pulse in your legs. If you do have an abdominal aortic aneurysm, your doctor may find a lump or mass in the abdomen, or notice a stiff or firm abdomen or a pulsing sensation.

Ways to test for AAA

  • Abdominal ultrasound
  • CT scan of abdomen to determine size
  • Ultrasonography – Standard imaging technique for AAA
  • Plain radiology – Less effective, because the only marginally specific finding, aortic wall calcification, is seen less than half of the time
  • Computed tomography – Offers certain advantages over ultrasonography in defining aortic size, rostral-caudal extent, involvement of visceral arteries and extension into the suprarenal aorta
  • Magnetic resonance imaging – Imaging of the aorta without subjecting patient to dye load or ionizing radiation
  • Angiography – Helpful in determining aortic anatomy and is advocated for preoperative use in certain cases

Treatment Options

Abdominal aortic aneurysms are typically treated surgically. When indicated, unruptured aneurysms can undergo elective repair. If the AAA ruptures, immediate emergency surgical repair is required.

For open abdominal surgery, the surgeon makes a large cut in the abdomen to remove damaged areas of the aorta. Open repair is used when the aneurysm is very large or has ruptured, and the procedure requires longer recovery time.

Endovascular surgery (inside the blood vessel) is a less invasive treatment with less recovery time. It is a better option if you have other medical problems, and is well suited for patients with a leaking or bleeding aneurysm.

If you have been experiencing any symptoms, or if you have family history of abdominal aortic aneurysms and would like to speak with a professional, call the experts at Baton Rouge Vascular Specialty Center at (225) 769-4493 for more information.