What is an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA)?
The aorta is the body’s largest artery and carries oxygen-rich blood pumped from your heart to the rest of your body. The thoracic aorta runs from the heart through your chest and becomes the abdominal aorta when it passes through the diaphragm. In the lower part of the abdomen the aorta splits into two branches, the iliac arteries, which carry blood into each leg.
An aneurysm is caused by a defect in the arterial wall which dilates and gradually becomes larger and larger like a balloon. It is a dangerous condition as the artery eventually bursts leading to death from bleeding.
Aneurysms can occur in any artery but most commonly occur in the abdominal aorta. An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is most often the result of atherosclerosis. It is sometimes hereditary (and runs in families) or associated with congenital conditions such as Marfan’s syndrome but may also be due to infection or injury.
It is most common in men over the age of 65.
What are the symptoms?
Most abdominal aneurysms cause no symptoms until they are well advanced which is why this is such a dangerous condition. Often the first sign is rupture and death.
If you develop symptoms, you may experience one or more of the following:
- A throbbing in your abdomen, usually above the kidney region, similar to a heartbeat
- Severe, sudden pain in your back, side or lower abdomen. If this is the case, your aneurysm may be about to burst
- On rare occasions, your feet or toes may develop pain, discoloration, or sores.
If your aneurysm bursts, you may suddenly feel severe abdominal pain, intense weakness or dizziness and you may eventually lose consciousness due to internal bleeding. An ambulance should be called immediately. The faster you make it to hospital the more likely you are to survive.
Screening for early detection
Surgical treatment for aneurysms is very successful before rupture occurs and they can be easily detected by a simple ultrasound scan.
All men over the age of 65 should have an abdominal ultrasound scan to check for an aortic aneurysm and anyone over the age of 50 with a family history of abdominal aortic aneurysm should be screened.
Aneurysms only require treatment if they are larger than 50mm in diameter but smaller aneurysms require surveillance with an abdominal ultrasound scan every 6 months to assess the size. It is impossible to predict how quickly they grow and they can suddenly increase in size for no obvious reason.
Treatments for Aortic Aneurysms
There are no cures for aortic aneurysms apart from surgery.