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Your aorta is your largest blood vessel, bringing blood from your heart to all other areas of your body. An aortic aneurysm develops when the wall of your aorta weakens and bulges or balloons outward. This can be life-threatening, especially if the aneurysm bursts or “ruptures.”

Below, you can learn about the signs of this condition and what you can do to lower your risk.

What Is the Aorta?

Your aorta brings blood flow to all major organs of the body, including the brain, arms, legs, chest, and abdomen. It is shaped like a cane and comes out from your heart, down through your chest, and into your abdomen.

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Types of Aortic Aneurysms

There are two main types of aortic aneurysms:

  • Abdominal aortic aneurysms (AAA) occur in the portion of your aorta that’s located in your abdomen. The aorta in the abdomen provides blood flow to the abdominal organs, including the liver, gut, and kidneys, as well as both legs.
  • Thoracic aortic aneurysms (TAA) occur in the portion of your aorta that’s located in your chest. This can include the ascending aorta (the short stem of the cane), the aortic arch (the cane’s handle), and the descending aorta (the longer stem of the cane). The aorta in the chest provides blood flow to the brain, arms, and organs in the chest.

What are the Symptoms of an Aortic Aneurysm?

Aortic aneurysms often take years to develop. In most cases, there are no early warning signs. It’s important to understand your risk factors and talk with your doctor about whether you should be screened for an aneurysm.

Symptoms, including severe chest or back pain, rarely occur unless the aneurysm is ready to rupture.

Ruptured aneurysms can cause massive internal bleeding, which can be deadly. A ruptured aneurysm is a medical emergency, and anyone with possible symptoms should call 911 right away.

Who Is at Risk for Aortic Aneurysms?

Aortic aneurysms are most common in men older than 60, but they can happen in women as well. The biggest risk factors are a family history of aortic aneurysms and a history of smoking. Other risk factors include:

  • Atherosclerosis, such as heart disease or peripheral arterial disease.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol.

To lower your risk, your doctor might suggest lifestyle changes that include quitting smoking, eating a heart-healthy diet, and getting regular exercise. Your doctor may also put you on medicine to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol.

Are There Treatments for Aortic Aneurysms?

Early diagnosis can save your life, so talk with your doctor about risks and possible testing. If you are diagnosed, your doctor will refer you to a surgeon specializing in aortic aneurysms. The surgeon will recommend a treatment plan based on the aneurysm size and location, as well as your medical history and other risk factors.

Smaller aneurysms are unlikely to rupture, and your vascular surgeon may recommend regular follow-up visits, ultrasound tests, and lifestyle changes. Larger aneurysms have a higher risk of rupture and may require elective surgery.

To schedule an appointment for an evaluation, contact the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute at 412-802-3333.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.