Thumbnail image of: Aortic Aneurysm: Illustration

Aneurysm

What is an aneurysm?

An aneurysm is a weak spot in the wall of a blood vessel. Aneurysms cause the wall of the blood vessel to push out or bulge. If the bulge stretches too far, the blood vessel may leak or tear (rupture).

Aneurysms are most common in the aorta, the main blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the body. When an aneurysm in a blood vessel in the brain ruptures, it causes a stroke.

A ruptured aneurysm is a medical emergency and can be life threatening.

What is the cause?

People with the greatest risk of an aneurysm are men over age 55. Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is a common cause. Fatty deposits called plaque may build up in blood vessels and make them narrower. Plaque also weakens the wall of the blood vessel. Pressure from the flow of blood can make the weakened part of the wall start to bulge.

Aneurysms can run in families. You may be born with a weakness in the wall of a blood vessel. Aneurysms may also be caused by some infections, injuries, irritation, or diseases such as Marfan syndrome, which causes tissue in the body to become weak. The exact cause of aneurysms is not always known.

Your risk for an aneurysm may also be greater if you smoke, have high blood pressure, or high cholesterol levels.

What are the symptoms?

Aneurysms do not always cause symptoms. The symptoms depend on the size of the aneurysm and where it is.

  • An aneurysm in the brain may cause vision problems or headaches.
  • An aneurysm in the chest may make it harder to swallow or might cause chest pain.
  • An abdominal aortic aneurysm might cause pain in your belly, back, or groin.
  • You may feel throbbing in your head, chest, or belly.
  • You may have pain caused by pressure on organs near the aneurysm.

Most people are unaware of an aneurysm until it begins to leak or tear, and then they describe having severe or tearing pain.

How is it diagnosed?

They are often found during routine medical exams. Many are found during tests for other problems. Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the blood vessel wall
  • Ultrasound, which uses sound waves to show pictures of structures inside the body
  • Chest X-ray
  • Angiogram, which uses dye injected into a vein and X-rays to look inside the heart and blood vessels
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the blood vessel wall
  • Lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, which uses a needle to get a sample of fluid from the area around your spinal cord to check for a ruptured aneurysm in the brain

How is it treated?

A small aneurysm may be watched over time to see if it gets bigger. Your healthcare provider may prescribe high blood pressure medicine to lower the pressure of blood against the arterial walls. If the aneurysm gets bigger, or starts to cause symptoms, your provider may want you to have surgery. Successful surgery of an aneurysm before it ruptures usually results in full recovery. Aneurysms generally do not come back after surgery. A ruptured aneurysm requires emergency surgery.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • Make sure you know how and when to take your medicine. Do not take more or less than you are supposed to take.
  • Take care of your health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet and try to keep a healthy weight. If you smoke, try to quit. If you want to drink alcohol, ask your healthcare provider how much is safe for you to drink. Learn ways to manage stress. Exercise according to your healthcare provider’s instructions.

Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent an aneurysm?

  • Have your blood pressure and blood cholesterol checked regularly. If you smoke, quit. Tell your healthcare provider if you need help quitting.
  • Exercise regularly according to the recommendations of your provider.
  • Eat a healthy diet that is low in salt, saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. Include lots of fruits, vegetables, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products.
  • If your provider tells you to do so, take an aspirin every day. There may be reasons why you should not take aspirin. Your provider may prescribe other medicines that can slow the progress of artery disease.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-12-08
Last reviewed: 2014-12-08
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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