Each year, approximately 200,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA). Typically, most of these abdominal aortic aneurysms don’t cause any obvious symptoms until they rupture. However, once abdominal aortic aneurysms rupture, the estimated death rate is over 50% for those who suffer a rupture before arriving at a hospital.
The survival rate continues to drop by about 1% per minute even after hospital arrival. In fact, a ruptured AAA is the 10th leading cause of death in men older than 55, and the 15th leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S.
Given the quickly-progressing life-threatening consequences of an AAA, regular ultrasound screenings for abdominal aortic aneurysms are crucial for those who are at risk of developing the condition. If an AAA is detected, physicians can continue to monitor the aneurysm and intervene in a timely manner should it become in danger of rupturing.
So what is an abdominal aortic aneurysm, who’s most at risk of developing the condition, what are the symptoms, and how are AAAs treated?
What Is An Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm?
Your aorta is the main blood vessel that leads away from the heart and extends down through the abdomen to the rest of your body. The aorta is your body’s main supplier of blood, delivering blood to your abdomen, pelvis and legs.
As the largest blood vessel in your body, the abdominal aorta is typically around 2cm wide, similar to the width of a garden hose. If the wall of the aorta weakens, the blood vessel bulges, which is considered an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
An aneurysm can cause the aorta to swell more than twice its normal size, which increases the risk of a rupture. If a large aneurysm ruptures, it causes substantial internal bleeding that is often fatal.
What Are The Risk Factors For An AAA?
Although there are several variables for aneurysms to form in the abdominal aorta and anyone can develop the condition, there are more common factors that increase a person’s risk of developing an AAA.
First of all, it’s important to know that aneurysms have a strong genetic correlation. According to the Society of Vascular Surgery, you are 12x more likely to develop an AAA if a first-degree relative has had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Of all patients undergoing treatment to repair an abdominal aortic aneurysm, approximately 15–25% have a first-degree relative with the same type of aneurysm.
Gender also plays a key role, although is not exclusive to those who develop abdominal aortic aneurysms. While men have a 4:1 ratio over women of developing AAAs, women who develop AAAs tend to fare worse than men. Women with AAAs tend to be older and have faster growing aneurysms. They also have 3–4x higher risk of rupture, including rupture at smaller diameters than men.
Aside from genetics and gender, certain health and lifestyle factors have been shown to increase one’s risk of an abdominal aortic aneurysm, including:
- Age 60 or older
- Have a family history of AAA
- Smoke or use tobacco products
- Have hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
- Have high blood pressure
- Have high cholesterol
- Are overweight or obese
- Being caucasian
- Aneurysms in other blood vessels or arteries
Symptoms Of An Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm
Most aneurysms develop slowly over time, showing no symptoms. Over time, an enlarging abdominal aortic aneurysm may show symptoms such as:
- General belly pain or discomfort that may come and go or be constant
- Deep pain in your chest, abdomen, or back that may ache or throb for hours or days
- A pulsing sensation near your belly button
Symptoms that an abdominal aortic aneurysm has ruptured include:
- Severe and sudden abdominal or back pain
- Pain that radiates to your back or legs
- Shortness of breath
- Sweatiness or clamminess
- Nausea or vomiting
- An extreme drop in blood pressure
- Rapid pulse
- Loss of consciousness
Without immediate treatment, a ruptured AAA can quickly lead to death.
Screening & Treatment for AAAs
Depending on the size of the aneurysm and how quickly it’s growing, treatment varies from regular monitoring to emergency surgery.
If you have any of the risk factors or early symptoms mentioned above, talk to your doctor about scheduling a diagnostic ultrasound screening. Ultrasonic screening is painless, quick, and easy, taking typically less than a half-hour.
Should an abdominal aortic aneurysm be detected, there are a number of non-surgical treatments that can reduce the risk of an aneurysm rupturing. These include medications to lower your cholesterol and blood pressure, establishing a healthy weight, and quitting smoking.
Regular ultrasound screening of your aneurysm will be advised. Should the aneurysm progress rapidly or become large enough to be life-threatening, surgery may be recommended to replace the weakened section of the blood vessel with a piece of synthetic tubing.
Evansville Surgical Associates’ Expertise With AAAs
If you’ve been diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurysm, one of Evansville Surgical Associates’ five board-certified and fellowship-trained vascular surgeons will work closely with your doctor to track the aneurysm using ultrasound in our accredited Vascular Lab.
Our registered vascular technologists have nearly 34 years of combined experience and are registered in vascular technology by the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (ARDMS).
If it’s determined that the aneurysm has become too large and is at risk for rupture, an Evansville Surgical Associate vascular surgeon will schedule surgery to repair the aneurysm.
Evansville Surgical Associates specializes in the comprehensive treatment of vascular diseases like abdominal aortic aneurysms—including screenings, diagnosis, and treatment procedures—so that you can enjoy optimal health and maintain an active lifestyle.
Established in 1969, Evansville Surgical Associates celebrates 50 years of providing leading-edge comprehensive and compassionate surgical care. Learn more about our physicians and our practices by visiting our website, or by calling us at 812.424.8231 or 800.264.8231.