What is an aortic dissection?
Aortic dissection occurs when a small tear develops in the wall of the aorta. The tear forms a new channel between the inner and outer layers of the aortic wall. This causes bleeding into the channel and can enlarge the tear. Aortic dissection is a life-threatening condition.
Aortic dissection can be caused by atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and high blood pressure, traumatic injury to the chest, such as being hit by the steering wheel of a car during an accident, and conditions that are present at birth, such as Marfan's syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
What causes aortic dissection, and how can it be prevented?
The key point in prevention of aortic dissection is managing high blood pressure. Minimizing this and other risk factors for atherosclerosis greatly reduces the risk of aortic dissection.
Any one or any combination of the following may cause aortic dissection:
A family history of aortic dissection is also a risk factor.
Illegal drugs that raise blood pressure, such as cocaine, increase the risk of a dissection.
What are the symptoms of aortic dissection?
Pain is the leading symptom of aortic dissection. A person typically has a sudden onset of pain at the moment of dissection. The pain is usually described as ripping or tearing and as the worst pain ever experienced. It is usually in between the shoulders on the back and might radiate to the arms or the neck. Less frequently, the pain can be felt as chest pain. The pain is very difficult to distinguish from that of angina or a heart attack.
Other symptoms may include:
If you experience these symptoms, you should call
Do not drive yourself as time is important and stress and movement should be reduced to a minimum. Do not try to take pain medicine or heart medicine. Taking aspirin with aortic dissections can be fatal.
If you witness a person become unconscious, call
How is aortic dissection diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms, medical history, lifestyle, and family medical history and do a physical exam. He or she may ask if you have been hit hard in the chest or been in an automobile accident. Several specialists may see you.
Your doctor will listen to your heart sounds with a stethoscope, take your pulse and evaluate your circulation, and evaluate your neurological status (nerve and brain function). As the symptoms of aortic dissection mimic many other conditions, you may need several tests.
If you have an aortic dissection, you may need:
How is aortic dissection treated?
The treatment of aortic dissection depends in part on where the dissection is located:
Initial emergency treatment
Treatment for aortic dissection should be started immediately following the diagnosis. The goal of initial emergency treatment is to relieve pain and to reduce the blood pressure on the dissection (reduction of the pulsatile load). This helps prevent additional bleeding and reduces the risk of a rupture.
Typically, you are put immediately in an intensive care unit (ICU) or taken to the operating room. Your doctor will continuously monitor and control your blood pressure, pulse, and heart activity.
Treating type A dissections
Typically, the first line of treatment for type A dissections (dissection of the aorta involving the ascending aorta) is surgery.
The goal of the operation is to prevent death due to bleeding and to reestablish blood flow into the extremities and inner organs (if branches of the aorta are involved in the dissection process).
In this open-heart procedure, your chest is opened and the surgeon removes the part of the aorta where the tear is found. The portion of the aorta removed can be replaced with a man-made graft. Another approach uses a similar graft that is placed inside the aorta. In this approach the ascending aorta is not replaced but internally reinforced.
The surgery cannot be done if you are already suffering from a severe complication in the process of dissection, such as a stroke. In this situation an operation would lead to severe bleeding in the brain.
Possible complications of aortic dissection and its surgery include:
It is sometimes not possible to use surgery in type A dissections. In this case, the same procedures and medicines outlined in the initial emergency treatment section are used.
Treating type B dissections
Type B dissections are usually treated with medicines. In rare cases, a procedure or surgery may be needed if:
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