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Aortic Aneurysm Types

An aneurysm is a balloon-like bulge that forms in your aorta, the large artery that is shaped like a candy cane and delivers oxygen-rich blood from your heart. 

While smaller aneurysms are often monitored or treated with medication, larger bulges can rupture and threaten your life. Our doctors specialize in all types of aortic cases and can provide the care you need, whether through traditional, open surgery or a minimally invasive procedure. Learn more about the renowned team at our Complex Aortic Center, or about our aneurysm repair. 

We also have the tools to diagnose aneurysms before they become dangerous, and to screen those at greater risk. 

Thoracic and Abdominal Aneurysm Types

After leaving the top of your heart, your aorta curves back down, running through your chest and abdomen. Aneurysms are divided into three types, based on their location:

  • Thoracic Aortic Aneurysms (TAA): These bulges form in the part of the aorta that runs through the chest, above the diaphragm muscle that helps you breathe. They are further categorized by the specific section they are found:
  • Aortic Root: the point where the aorta leaves the heart, and where the aortic valve and coronary arteries are located
  • Ascending Aorta: after the root, but before the aorta makes its first turn and before the first blood-distributing branch
  • Aortic Arch: the curved part of the aorta, with three major branches supplying blood to the brain and arms
  • Descending Aorta: the part after the aortic arch that heads toward the abdomen
  • Abdominal Aortic Aneurysms (AAA): These bulges are found in the abdomen. They are the most common type, often found in men older than 60.
  • Thoracoabdominal Aortic Aneurysms: These bulges cross both the chest and the abdomen. 

In addition to internal bleeding from rupturing, aneurysms can:

  • Cause the aorta to split, another serious complication (learn more about aortic dissection)
  • Form blood clots
  • Press on nearby body parts
  • Block blood flow
  • Sometimes stop the aortic valve from closing properly (thoracic aneurysm only) 

Aneurysm Symptoms

Aneurysms can develop and then grow slowly for years without causing noticeable changes. They are often discovered during medical visits for different conditions. Other patients may experience certain symptoms, depending on the state of the aneurysm and its location. 

Ruptured Aneurysms

If you experience signs of a ruptured aneurysm, call 911. 

Ruptured thoracic aneurysms can cause:

  • Pain that is sudden, severe, sharp or stabbing and that starts in your chest or upper back and moves down toward your abdomen
  • Chest, arm and neck pain
  • Shock — a steep drop in blood pressure that interferes with the function of vital organs like the brain and kidneys and is marked by:
    • Clammy, sweaty skin
    • Light-headedness
    • Rapid heart rate 

Ruptured abdominal aneurysms can cause:

  • Sudden, severe pain in your lower abdomen and back
  • Nausea
  • Constipation and urination problems
  • Clammy, sweaty skin
  • Light-headedness
  • Rapid heart rate upon standing
  • Shock 

Thoracic Aneurysm Symptoms

Before rupturing, thoracic aneurysms can cause:

  • Pain in your jaw, neck, back or chest 
  • Coughing and/or hoarseness
  • Trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Neck swelling
  • Clammy skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid heart rate
  • General sense that something is wrong 

Abdominal Aneurysm Symptoms

Before rupturing, abdominal aneurysms can cause:

  • A throbbing feeling in your abdomen
  • Pain deep in your back or on your side
  • Steady, gnawing abdominal pain that lasts for hours or days 

Aneurysm Causes and Risk Factors

Aneurysms can develop when normal blood flow pushes on a spot of the aortic wall that is weakened or injured. While some reasons for this damage remain a mystery, other potential causes and risk factors include: 

  • Gender (men are more susceptible than women)
  • Smoking and emphysema
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries from plaque buildup)
  • Aging
  • Vasculitis and other diseases that inflame the arteries
  • Car accident or other chest trauma (less common, and thoracic aneurysms only)
  • Family history of aneurysms
  • Personal history of aneurysms in leg arteries
  • Certain genetic conditions that weaken the body’s connective tissue, cause thoracic aneurysms at a younger age and put patients at a greater risk for rupture and dissection:
  • Marfan syndrome
  • Loeys-Dietz syndrome
  • Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (the vascular type)
  • Turner syndrome

Learn more about congenital defects and disease.

  • Having an aortic valve with two flaps (leaflets) instead of three (bicuspid valve) 

Our doctors and other researchers continue to look for additional causes of aortic weakening, including genetic mutations. If you have any of these known risk factors, ask one of our doctors if you should be screened for an aneurysm. 

Aneurysm Screening and Diagnosis

Early diagnosis of aneurysms can help prevent ruptures and other complications. Since aneurysms might not cause symptoms right away, people at greater risk may benefit from routine screening. 

Aneurysm Screening

If you are on Medicare, you can get coverage for a one-time abdominal aneurysm ultrasound screening if you meet one of two conditions:

  • You have a family history of the condition
  • You are man age 65 to 75 who has smoked more than 100 cigarettes in your life 

If you do not meet these requirements but feel you are at risk, talk to your doctor and your insurance company.

Aneurysm Diagnosis

Diagnosing an aneurysm takes several steps:

  • Taking your medical history
  • Physical exam: If you have an abdominal aneurysm, your doctor may feel a throbbing mass or hear a rushing blood flow rather than the normal whooshing sound.
  • One or more imaging tests to determine the aneurysm’s size and location:
  • Ultrasound
  • Computed Tomography (CT) scan
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
  • Angiography using dye and X-rays to look inside your aorta 

Learn more about aortic aneurysm treatment.

For information or appointments, please call 888-354-3422.

Learn about aortic aneurysm repair at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.