What is an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm?
An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is a swelling in the lower part of the aorta—the primary artery that leads from the heart, through the chest, and to the abdomen.
The aorta is the largest blood vessel in the body, supplying blood to the stomach, the pelvis, and the legs. If an abdominal aortic aneurysm ruptures, the resulting internal hemorrhage (severe bleeding) can be life-threatening.
Types of Aortic Aneurysms
Aortic aneurysms can occur anywhere along the aorta. An abdominal aortic aneurysm is the most common type, occurring in the lower aortic section of the belly. Aortic aneurysms are classified by where on the aorta the swelling and weakening of the vessel wall occurs.
Types of aortic aneurysms include:
- Abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) develops in the section of the descending aorta located in the stomach.
- Ascending aortic aneurysm is an abnormal bulge found at the top section of the aorta, right before the curve of the artery.
- Aortic arch aneurysms occur in the section of the aorta nearest to the heart, involving the blood vessels that connect to the neck and head.
- Descending thoracic aneurysms occur in the wall of the descending thoracic aorta, found in the back of the chest cavity.
Signs & Symptoms of Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm
An abdominal aortic aneurysm typically produces no initial symptoms. Some aneurysms are small and slow-growing and never get any larger.
If an abdominal aortic aneurysm is large and fast-growing, it can create great discomfort in the body. Unfortunately, some people don’t exhibit any signs of having one until the aneurysm ruptures, resulting in severe symptoms and even death.
Signs & symptoms of an abdominal aortic aneurysm can include:
- Unrelenting leg, back, or abdominal pain
- Pulsing in the stomach near the belly button, like a heartbeat
- Sweaty, clammy skin
- Rapid heartbeat
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe, sudden pain in the lower back, legs, or stomach
- Shortness of breath
What Causes an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm?
An abdominal aortic aneurysm is a weak spot in the wall of the aortic blood vessel, causing it to bulge and widen. Disease and injury can play a role in the development of this type of aneurysm.
Causes of an abdominal aortic aneurysm can include:
- Cardiovascular disease. Conditions of the heart and blood vessels can increase your risk for aortic aneurysms.
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD). This condition causes blockage or the narrowing of the vessels that carry blood from the heart to the legs.
- Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. This disease is caused by plaque and fat buildup in the arteries, which weakens the lining of the blood vessel.
- Vasculitis is a disease involving blood vessel inflammation, which could damage the walls of the aorta.
- High blood pressure can weaken the aortic walls.
- Traumatic injury, as from a car accident.
- Aortic infection. A fungal or bacterial infection in the heart could cause damage to the aorta.
- Tobacco use can cause a reduction of structural proteins in the aortic wall, weakening its integrity.
Abdominal aortic aneurysms (AAA) are most common in white males over the age of 65. There are additional risk factors, including:
- Smoking. 90% of people with abdominal aortic aneurysms have a tobacco smoking history
- Sex. Men are 4 to 5 times greater to have an AAA than females
- Age. Men over 55 and women over 70 are at a higher risk for abdominal aortic aneurysms
- Health history. If you’ve had a previous aneurysm in another area of the body, your risk for an AAA goes up
- Family history. People with a parent or sibling who has had an AAA are more likely to develop one
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol levels
The most concerning complication for an abdominal aortic aneurysm is tearing the aortic walls or a rupture. This can result in a life-threatening situation. The larger an aneurysm grows, the greater risk for a rupture.
Complications of abdominal aortic aneurysms can include:
- Internal bleeding caused by a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. Massive internal bleeding can be fatal.
- Blood clots can develop in the aneurysm area, potentially causing blockage of blood flow to the kidneys, toes, legs, or stomach organs.
If you or someone you know is experiencing severe pain from a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm symptoms, get to a hospital immediately.
Anyone can develop an abdominal aortic aneurysm, but certain lifestyle choices can help reduce your risk of having one, including:
- Maintaining a healthy diet
- Quitting smoking
- Monitoring your blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Exercising regularly
- Scheduling regular checkups with your doctor
Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm Care
NewYork-Presbyterian has exceptional expertise in caring for patients with complex aneurysms, including abdominal aortic aneurysms. Our top-notch doctors and cardiologists are well-versed in recognizing the signs of the condition and will create a treatment plan based on your individual needs.
For the best in compassionate heart care, contact NewYork-Presbyterian for an appointment.