First Time User? Enroll now.
*Vaccine availability and appointments* | Additional COVID-19 Resources | Testing
Please be aware that mask-wearing is required at all UNC Health facilities.
Home > Health Library > Aortic Aneurysm
An aortic aneurysm (say "a-OR-tik AN-yuh-rih-zum") is a bulge in a section of the aorta, the body's main artery. The aorta carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Because the section with the aneurysm is overstretched and weak, it can burst. If the aorta bursts, it can cause serious bleeding that can quickly lead to death.
Aneurysms can form in any section of the aorta.
A pseudoaneurysm happens when a bulge occurs but doesn't affect all three layers of tissue in the wall of the aorta. This type of aneurysm might be caused by an injury.
The wall of the aorta is normally very elastic. It can stretch and then shrink back as needed to adapt to blood flow. But some medical problems, such as atherosclerosis and certain infections, weaken the artery walls. These problems, along with the natural wear and tear of aging, can cause an aneurysm.
Most aortic aneurysms don't cause symptoms. But symptoms may occur if the aneurysm gets bigger. The most common symptoms include belly, chest, or back pain that may spread to the groin, buttocks, or legs. The pain may be deep, aching, or throbbing. If the aneurysm bursts, or ruptures, it causes sudden, severe pain.
Aneurysms are often diagnosed by chance during tests done for other reasons. In some cases, they are found during a screening test for aneurysms. If your doctor thinks you have an aneurysm, you may have tests such as an ultrasound or CT scan to find out where it is and how big it is.
An aortic aneurysm may be repaired with surgery or a procedure if the aneurysm is at risk of bursting open (rupturing). If you have symptoms, a large aneurysm, or a fast-growing aneurysm, you need surgery to fix it.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
The wall of the aorta is normally very elastic. It can stretch and then shrink back as needed to adapt to blood flow. But some things weaken the artery walls and can cause an aneurysm. These things include:
Exactly how atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, leads to aortic aneurysms isn't clear. It may cause changes in the lining of the artery wall that lead to tissue damage.
Certain inherited conditions can affect the arteries. These conditions include Marfan syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
The aorta naturally becomes less elastic and stiffer with age.
Some infections can cause aneurysms. Examples include syphilis and endocarditis.
A sudden, intense blow to the chest or belly can damage the aorta.
But what causes the aorta to become inflamed isn't clear.
Most people who have an aortic aneurysm don't have symptoms. But symptoms may occur if the aneurysm gets bigger.
Symptoms may include:
If an aortic aneurysm bursts, or ruptures, it causes sudden, severe pain, an extreme drop in blood pressure, and signs of shock. Without immediate treatment, it can quickly lead to death.
If you have an aortic aneurysm, you will see your doctor regularly to check on the size of the aneurysm. The size of the aneurysm and how fast it is growing both help determine how and when to treat it.
Rupture is a dangerous complication. As an aneurysm expands, the tension on the blood vessel wall increases. This causes the aneurysm to expand further, which puts even more tension on the wall. The larger the aneurysm gets, the greater the chances that it will grow larger and eventually burst. Your doctor will want to repair an aneurysm before it has a risk of rupture.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you have signs of a ruptured aortic aneurysm such as:
If you see someone pass out, call 911 or other emergency services and start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The emergency operator can coach you on how to do CPR.
Call a doctor now if you have:
Call for a doctor appointment if you have:
Aneurysms are often diagnosed by chance during exams or tests done for other reasons. In some cases, they are found during a screening test for aneurysms. Screening tests help your doctor look for a condition before symptoms appear.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends a screening ultrasound test for abdominal aneurysms for men ages 65 to 75 who have ever smoked.footnote 1
Some doctors think that other groups should be screened too. Talk to your doctor about whether the benefits of screening would outweigh the risks in your case.
Experts recommend screening tests for a thoracic aneurysm for anyone who has a close relative who's had a thoracic aortic aneurysm.footnote 2
Sometimes an abdominal aneurysm is felt during a routine physical exam. If your doctor thinks you might have an aortic aneurysm, the doctor may:
As part of a physical exam, your doctor might:
Your doctor may ask questions such as:
You might have imaging tests to:
These tests include:
Ultrasounds help your doctor check the size of the aneurysm.
Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance angiogram (MRA) are used if the doctor needs a more detailed view than an ultrasound provides. This is important when information is needed about the aneurysm's relation to the blood vessels of the kidney or other organs. Your doctor needs this information especially before surgery.
This is an ultrasound used to study the heart and the aorta. You might have one of these:
One of the most important goals of testing is to estimate the risk that an aneurysm may burst, or rupture. The risk of rupture is compared to the risks of surgery. Tests such as abdominal ultrasound can be used to closely follow any change in the aneurysm and help measure the risk for rupture.
There may be other things that determine how often you should get an ultrasound.
Repair of an aortic aneurysm may be done if there's a risk of it bursting open (rupturing). Treatment of an aneurysm is based on how big it is, how fast it's growing, and if you have symptoms.
If you have symptoms, a large aneurysm, or a fast-growing aneurysm, you need surgery to fix it. A doctor will repair the damaged part of the blood vessel during open surgery or a minimally invasive procedure.
Small aneurysms rarely rupture. They are not usually treated.
You will have routine ultrasound tests to check the size of the aneurysm and see how fast it's growing.
Even if your aneurysm doesn't grow fast, you may be at risk for heart problems. Your doctor may suggest that you exercise more, eat a heart-healthy diet, and stop smoking. He or she may also prescribe medicine to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
If you have an aortic aneurysm, you need close medical monitoring and possibly treatment.
Your doctor may also suggest lifestyle changes that are good for your heart and blood vessels.
You will have regular tests to check the size and growth of the aneurysm. Talk with your doctor about how often you should get tested.
Medicines and counseling can help you quit for good.
A heart-healthy lifestyle and medicines can help you do this.
Try to lose weight if you need to.
Ask your doctor what type and amount of exercise is safe for you. If aerobic activity is safe, try to do activities that raise your heart rate. Exercise for at least 30 minutes on most, preferably all, days of the week.
Heart-healthy foods include vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, lean meat, fish, and whole grains. Limit foods that are not so good for your heart, like sodium, alcohol, and sugar.
Other health problems include conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. If you think you may have a problem with alcohol or drug use, talk to your doctor.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2019). Screening for abdominal aortic aneurysm: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement. JAMA, 322(22): 2211–2218. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2019.18928. Accessed April 3, 2020.
Hiratzka LF, et al. (2010). 2010 ACCF/AHA/AATS/ACR/ASA/SCA/SCAI/SIR/STS/SVM guidelines for the diagnosis and management of patients with thoracic aortic disease. Circulation, 121(13): e266–e369.
Current as of:
March 28, 2022
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineJeffrey J. Gilbertson MD - Vascular Surgery
Current as of: March 28, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Jeffrey J. Gilbertson MD - Vascular Surgery
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.