What are diseases of the aorta? Aortic aneurysm

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What are diseases of the aorta?

Aortic aneurysm


of the aorta

An aortic aneurysm is a swelling or bulging of 

the aorta. Most aortic aneurysms are found in the 

abdominal area of your aorta, which is known as an 

abdominal aortic aneurysm - or AAA for short.   Less 

frequently, they can occur in your thorax (chest) - 

in either your ascending (up high) or descending 

(downwards) aorta. Anything that affects the elastic 

fibers in the wall of your aorta may make it weaker 

and more likely to bulge or swell.  

Your risk of having an aneurysm increases as you 

get older. Your risk is also higher if you smoke, have 

high blood pressure, have coronary heart disease 

or it is a condition that affects other people on your 

family. (This means your brother, sister or a parent 

has or has had an AAA.) Getting certain infections, 

and inflammatory or autoimmune diseases such as 

Marfans syndrome, may also increase your risk.

Most aortic aneurysms are found in people over  

50 years and are 6 times more common in men  

than women. 

For men over the age of 65 years the NHS offer a 

AAA screening service. 

For more information visit 


The aorta is the largest artery in your body that 

leaves the left side of your heart and carries 

oxygen-rich blood to all parts of your body. 

Diseases of the aorta are very serious, and can 

often be life-threatening. 

If the wall of the aorta becomes weakened, it can:

•  bulge or dilate – called an aortic aneurysm

•  tear – called an aortic dissection

•  split or burst – called an aortic rupture.

Small or moderate sized aortic aneurysms are 

unlikely to cause you any symptoms, and so can be 

difficult to detect. Larger aneurysms in your chest 

may cause discomfort or pain in your chest or back. 

Abdominal aortic aneurysms can put pressure on 

your spine causing lower back or abdominal pain, 

which can be severe and accompanied by feeling 

lightheaded or fainting. 

If you have an aortic aneurysm there is a risk 

that it may begin to leak or even rupture (burst), 

depending on its size. The bigger it is, the higher  

the risk. If it grows more than around 5.5cm you  

may need to have surgery to prevent it from 

rupturing. A specialist will discuss which treatment  

is best for you. 

©British Heart Foundation 2014, a registered charity in England & Wales (225971) and Scotland (SC039426)

Aortic rupture

Aortic dissection

Our cardiac nurses and 

information support officers are 

here to answer your questions 

and give you all the heart health 

information and support you need.

Call us on 0300 330 3311 

Similar cost to 01 or 02 numbers.  

Lines are open 9am - 5pm Monday to Friday.

This information does not replace the advice 

that your doctor or nurse may give you. If you 

are worried about your heart health in any way, 

contact your GP or local healthcare provider.

Heart Helpline

surgery. This decision will depend on which type of 

aortic dissection you have, Type A or Type B. 


Type A occurs in the arch and proximal 

descending aorta (the area from the left ventricle 

to the aortic arch). The risk of rupture is high, and 

usually requires surgery to repair the aorta and 

possibly replace the aortic valve.   

 Type  B occurs in the descending aorta. The risk of 

rupture is less than for Type A, and doesn’t always 

require immediate surgery. Doctors may be able 

to keep the condition under control with the use 

of blood pressure lowering medicines. 

All people who have an aortic dissection (including 

those treated surgically) have to take medication 

to control their blood pressure, usually for the rest 

of their lives. The medication helps reduce stress 

on the aorta and usually consists of a beta-blocker 

or calcium channel blocker plus another blood 

pressure tablet such as an angiotensin-converting 

enzyme (ACE) inhibitor.

Aortic dissection most often occurs because of a 

tear or damage to the inner lining of the artery.  This 

can put extra pressure on the wall of the aorta and 

may cause the wall to rupture.  This is a potentially 

dangerous condition that needs emergency 

treatment.  Aortic dissection is a rare condition – 

and it is not an easy diagnosis to make. There are 

two types of aortic dissection, Type A and Type 

B. Each type is located in a different area and the 

treatment and management of each is different.

Aortic dissection is caused by diseases that affect 

the aortic wall.  The most common of these is 

atherosclerosis - the building up of fatty substances 

in the artery lining. It can cause many different 

symptoms, and the classic signs are a sudden onset 

of severe pain across the chest, often felt in the 

back or between the shoulder blades.  It can also 

cause pain in the jaw, face, abdomen, back or lower 

extremities as well as shock, feeling cold, clammy 

and sweaty, fainting and shortness of breath. If you 

experience any of these symptoms you should call 

999 for an ambulance. This is a life threatening 

condition that needs immediate medical treatment.

If you have an aortic dissection you will be in a 

intensive care unit to monitor your blood pressure, 

heart rate and rhythm, breathing rate and oxygen 

levels closely. Pain relief will be given to keep you 

comfortable and medication to help control your 

blood pressure and heart rate. Once your condition 

is stable doctors will decide whether to recommend 

surgery or to continue medication therapy without 

The aorta is a very large blood vessel. If it ruptures 

there is a massive amount of blood loss, and the 

person can very quickly go into shock and die. 

Ideally, an aortic aneurysm or dissection will be 

repaired before it ruptures, but for many people they 

simply don’t know they have any underlying disease.

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