The aorta is the body’s largest and most important artery. It serves as the main pathway for the transport of oxygenated blood from the heart through the body via smaller arteries. Due to the aorta’s central role in the circulatory system, any problems with the aorta can have serious, sometimes fatal, consequences. When affected by disease, the aorta can split (dissection) or dilate (aneurysm). Diagnostic evaluation of aortic disorders has improved, allowing for earlier identification and therapeutic intervention. At Houston Methodist, a team of specialist physicians and health care professionals works with individuals who have long-term or acute aortic conditions to achieve the best outcomes.
About the Aorta
Structure of the Aorta
The aorta begins at the heart’s left ventricle and reaches up and out from the heart (this is called the ascending aorta). It then forms an arch (the aortic arch) and extends down into the abdomen (called the descending aorta).
The descending aorta has two parts:
- The thoracic aorta is the portion of the descending aorta that passes through the chest.
- The abdominal aorta is the portion of the descending aorta that passes through the abdomen.
The Aortic Wall
The thick wall of the aorta has three layers:
- The innermost layer, called the intima, creates a smooth surface for blood to flow over.
- The middle layer, called the media, allows the aorta to expand and contract with each heartbeat.
- The outer layer, called the adventitia, provides additional support and structure.
Aortic disease has many causes, ranging from congenital (present at birth) to inherited diseases. Aortic disease may be caused by trauma or conditions usually associated with aging, such as atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). It can also occur in younger individuals who have high levels of cholesterol. The plaque that builds up inside the blood vessels in people with these conditions may lead to a weakening of the aorta, which can bulge and form an aneurysm. Aortic aneurysms can rupture and cause bleeding that can be life threatening.
Several noticeable symptoms associated with aortic diseases include:
- Chest pain (angina) or tightness in the chest
- Feeling faint or fainting with exertion
- Shortness of breath, especially with exertion
- Fatigue, especially during times of increased activity
- Heart palpitations (sensations of a rapid, fluttering heartbeat)
- Heart murmur
A number of medical conditions can interfere adversely with the aorta’s function and lead to serious, even fatal, consequences:
- Aortic aneurysm – a weakened section of the aorta that may rupture
- Aortic stenosis -- a narrowing of the heart’s aortic valve, which restricts blood flow
- Aortic arch disease – blockage of the blood vessels that branch off of the aorta, leading to decreased blood flow to the body
- Aortic dissection – a tear in the wall of the aorta
- Marfan Syndrome – a genetic disorder that affects the heart’s connective tissue