Several conditions can interfere with the aorta's function and lead to serious, even fatal, consequences. These conditions include:
An aneurysm is a dilatation (bulging) of an artery by more than 50 percent of its diameter. Aneurysms in the aorta are most commonly caused by:
- Atherosclerosis (hardening of the vessel wall caused by fat deposits).
- Degeneration with age, or
- Genetic disorders such as Marfan syndrome.
There are two main types of aortic aneurysm:
- Abdominal aortic aneurysms (AAAs) occur in the abdominal portion of the aorta, usually near the kidneys. Small AAAs rarely rupture, but they can grow very large without causing symptoms. AAAs are usually found while performing CT scans for other medical conditions.
- Thoracic aortic aneurysms (TAAs) occur in the chest portion of the aorta, above the diaphragm. Even large TAAs do not always cause symptoms, but they can be identified through chest X-rays or CT scans.
Symptoms of an Aortic Aneurysm
It is possible to have an aortic aneurysm for years and not notice any symptoms. For those patients with symptoms, the most common is pain in the chest, abdomen or back.
Complications from an Aortic Aneurysm
If an aortic aneurysm remains untreated, it can lead to:
- Detachment of clots, which can deprive organs or limbs of blood and lead to tissue death (called necrosis)
- Dissection, a tearing away of the innermost lining of the aorta that can be fatal
- Rupture of the bulging sac, which can also be fatal
Aortic valve stenosis, or simply aortic stenosis, is a serious heart condition involving a narrowing of the aortic valve, the "gateway" through which oxygenated blood passes from the heart to the rest of the body. As a result of this narrowing, the heart must work harder to pump blood out and gradually grows weaker over time, which could lead to heart failure and death.
Several factors can cause aortic stenosis:
- Calcium Buildup: The most common cause of aortic stenosis in people over 65 is a buildup of calcium that can make the valve hard and thick over time. The risk factors for this buildup are much the same as those for hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis): high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and high cholesterol.
- Bicuspid Valve: In people born with a birth defect known as bicuspid aortic valve, the valve is already narrowed as it consists of two flaps instead of the normal three. This condition may cause no complications until adulthood, when the valve may become too narrow to handle a normal volume of blood flow.
- Rheumatic Fever: Scarring may arise on the aortic valve as a result of rheumatic fever in childhood or early adulthood, which may restrict blood flow.
Symptoms of aortic stenosis can include:
- Chest pain or tightness
- Feeling faint or weak
- Shortness of breath
Aortic Arch Disease
Aortic arch disease is a group of conditions that affect the aorta at its arch (the "bend" between the ascending and descending aorta) and its branches to the brain, neck and arms. Aortic arch conditions can result from blood pressure changes, clots, trauma, congenital disorders, or Takayasu's arteritis, an autoimmune disorder that inflames the aorta.
Symptoms of aortic arch disease can include:
- Blurred vision
- Changes in blood pressure
- Trouble breathing
- Numbness in the arm
- Slow pulse
- Transient ischemic attack (sometimes called a "mini-stroke")
An aortic dissection is a life-threatening condition that involves a tearing away of the innermost lining of the aorta, which allows blood from within the aorta to penetrate into the middle layer.
Almost all patients with an acute aortic dissection experience pain in the chest, neck, back, abdomen or legs, depending on the location of the dissection. The pain often comes on suddenly and is at its most severe at the start. Patients often describe it as "sharp," "stabbing" or "tearing."
The early mortality (death rate) from aortic dissection is about one percent per hour, so the sooner it is diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome.
Learn more about the aorta and aortic disease:
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