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Aortic Aneurysms 101

Know the Signs and Risk Factors

The number of aortic aneurysms is on the rise in the United States with the number of deaths related to the condition nearly doubling between 2009 and 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here are the signs to watch for, and when to see a physician.

What Is an Aortic Aneurysm?

Aneurysms can happen anywhere in the body, but aortic aneurysms happen when a weak spot develops in the aorta, the large artery that delivers blood from your heart to the rest of the body.

A bubble develops in the weak spot and fills with blood. Fortunately, most aortic aneurysms do not burst, but the condition becomes a medical emergency the moment the artery ruptures. Ruptures are extremely dangerous and can cause severe internal bleeding. Emergency intervention is critical.

Aortic aneurysms are not to be confused with cerebral aneurysms, which occur in a blood vessel in or around the brain.

Symptoms of an Aortic Aneurysm

Here are some of the telltale signs that you should schedule an appointment with your physician:

  • Chest or back pain
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Hoarseness

Northwestern Medicine Cardiac Surgeon and co-director of the Thoracic Aortic Surgery Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, S. Christopher Malaisrie, MD, says any of these symptoms could suggest an aortic aneurysm, but the only way to diagnose it definitively is through medical imaging, such as CT scan or MRI.

“As soon as a patient notices these symptoms, they should seek medical attention,” says Dr. Malaisrie. “They could be a sign that an aneurysm has expanded to the point that we need to intervene — or it could be any number of other conditions.”

Am I at Risk?

Aortic aneurysms are more common in men than women and are associated with the following risk factors:

  • Family history of aneurysm
  • Age of 60 years or older
  • High blood pressure
  • Infection
  • Plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis)
  • High cholesterol
  • History of smoking
  • Sudden traumatic injury

Be aware of these risk factors and make sure that your physician is aware of them during your next visit.