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An abdominal aortic aneurysm screening is a simple diagnostic ultrasound test that is performed to look for bulges, tears, and other abnormalities in the largest blood vessel in the abdomen. Aortic aneurysms are uncommon, but they can be deadly if a ruptured blood vessel is not repaired or replaced right away. The screening test is highly effective at detecting problems early enough to prevent life-threatening complications from aortic ruptures. The earlier a damaged aorta is discovered, the better the patient's chances of recovery with medications or elective surgery.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force and similar government health-care agencies in other countries recommend that people who meet risk factor criteria attend an abdominal aortic aneurysm screening. Male patients between the ages of 65 and 75 are at the highest risk of developing problems, especially if they are current or former smokers. Even if a 65-year-old person has not smoked in several decades, he is still more susceptible to aneurysms than a lifelong non-smoker. Female patients and younger males who have family histories of abdominal aortic aneurysms should also consider getting screened.
The abdominal aortic aneurysm screening procedure is straightforward, quick, and painless. Most screenings take place at radiology clinics or private doctor's offices and can be completed in less than 20 minutes. A doctor or trained radiology nurse first helps the patient onto a bed and applies a warm gel to the abdomen. A transducer is passed over the abdomen which emits sound waves and picks up echoes. A real-time image of the aorta and surrounding structures is created based on the frequencies of returning echoes.
A radiologist interprets the results of abdominal aortic aneurysm screening tests. He or she measures the diameter of the aorta at its widest section to determine whether or not a dangerous bulge exists. A screening that reveals a small bulge, less than about 1.5 inches (about 3.8 cm) is not normally a cause for immediate concern. The patient may simply be instructed to schedule another screening in about six months to make sure the bulge does not get bigger. Larger bulges or signs of tearing typically require immediate surgical consultations to address the problem.
Abdominal aortic aneurysm screening can also be accomplished with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized tomography (CT), though such tests are usually much more expensive than ultrasounds. If a doctor needs to check for unrelated problems in the chest and abdomen with a CT or MRI scan, he or she may decide to screen the aorta at the same time. Regardless of the equipment used, screening procedures are highly accurate and reliable in detecting aortic abnormalities.