The thoracic aorta is an essential artery that runs from the heart to the diaphragm and supplies fresh blood to the body. Its function can be severely compromised if the aorta bulges and widens, a condition called an aneurysm. A thoracic aortic aneurysm can occur for many reasons, though the most common are atherosclerosis, chronic high blood pressure, and direct trauma to the chest. Aneurysms tend to slowly expand over time, and may not cause any initial symptoms. If an aneurysm ruptures, however, an individual can suffer from severe hemorrhaging, heart attack, or stroke.
A thoracic aortic aneurysm is usually the result of atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries caused by fat and cholesterol buildup. Atherosclerosis causes narrowing and blockages in the aorta, putting excessive pressure on the aortic walls that can lead to an aneurysm. A person may also have an aneurysm due to a congenital defect or autoimmune disorder, a severe infection, or high blood pressure. In addition, some aneurysms come about suddenly following accidents that cause chest trauma.
An individual is unlikely to experience physical symptoms in the early stages of a thoracic aortic aneurysm. It is not until the bulge grows larger that chest pain and tightness become noticeable. If the aneurysm ruptures, a person suffers intense pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, and a racing heart beat. A ruptured aortic aneurysm is a medical emergency, and the individual should be rushed to an emergency room immediately to prevent death.
It is uncommon for a thoracic aortic aneurysm to go completely undetected until it grows large enough to rupture. In most cases, aneurysms are discovered by doctors during routine health checkups or examinations for other conditions. If a doctor suspects an aneurysm, he or she can conduct a computerized tomography scan and an x-ray to identify the exact location of the problem. Treatment for a thoracic aortic aneurysm depends on the cause of the problem, its size, and the likelihood of rupture.
Specialists often decide against surgery when aneurysms are relatively small and do not appear to be getting worse. Patients may be instructed to make healthy lifestyle changes and receive frequent checkups with their doctors to ensure that additional problems do not arise. Cholesterol-lowering medications and blood pressure stabilizers can help prevent the likelihood of complications.
A large aneurysm usually necessitates surgery to prevent a life-threatening rupture. Depending on the cause, a team of surgeons may decide to conduct a bypass procedure, place a stabilizing stent in the aorta, or completely replace the artery with a donor organ or artificial device. Heart surgery is an inherently delicate and dangerous procedure, but highly-trained specialists and modern techniques give patients the best possible chances of survival. Following surgery, patients usually need to receive regular checkups to monitor their conditions.