Aortic dissection occurs when the layers of the aorta separate. The aorta is the main artery leading from the heart. Arterial walls have three layers. A tear in an inner layer can admit blood under pressure that works its way between layers, causing the layers to dissect apart or separate. This process can squeeze off the main channel so that blood cannot get through the main aorta or any of its branches.
This is a life-threatening event since it can cause stroke, sudden heart failure, or death to impaired blood flow to a number of vital organs. The enlarging mass of misdirected blood can also compromise nearby structures such as the airways, lungs, or heart. Or it may rupture with catastrophic bleeding.
Elevated blood pressure and a diseased aorta are the principal causes, usually due to atherosclerosis. Other congenital and acquired afflictions of the aorta also increase the chances of dissection.
The following factors increase your chance of developing aortic dissection. Be sure to discuss any of these risk factors with your doctor:
If you experience any of the symptoms below, see your physician. They may reflect aortic dissection or many other serious and not-so-serious conditions. These are the most common, but there are many other possible symptoms since the aorta supplies blood to every organ in the body except the lungs.
The usual case of aortic dissection appears in the emergency department as a sudden catastrophic event. Your emergency physician will ask about your symptoms and medical history, perform a physical exam, and then rapidly proceed with any of several possible imaging studies.
Tests may include the following:
You will most likely be admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) for stabilization and further evaluation. Blood pressure will be controlled, and you will be carefully observed.
One type of aortic dissection requires immediate major surgery. Another type can often be managed without surgery (if no blood vessels are obstructed). It depends on where in the aorta the dissection occurs. Sixty percent of patients treated for aortic dissection are alive 10 years later. Treatment options include the following:
The chest is opened, and the aorta is repaired. A length of Dacron (called a stent) may be used to replace the damaged segment of aorta. This is as major as surgery gets.
Your blood pressure will be reduced to minimize stress on the aorta. You may undergo repeat imaging studies every 6-12 months to detect further dissection.
To help reduce your chance of aortic dissection, take the following steps:
American Academy of Family Physicians
American Heart Association
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Isselbacher K, et al. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine . 14th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 1998.
The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy website. Available at: http://www.merck.c... . Accessed July 2005.
Mukherjee D, Eagle KA. Aortic dissection–an update. Curr Probl Cardiol . 2005 Jun;30(6):287-325.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Michael J. Fucci, DO
Last Updated: 9/26/2012