Many people associate aneurysms with a sudden rupture in the brain. But an aneurysm can occur in any blood vessel in the body that has a weak spot in the artery wall, causing it to stretch into a balloon-like bulge. When an aneurysm occurs in the aorta, the large blood vessel in the abdomen that supplies blood to the legs, it’s known as an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA).
As with the brain, an abdominal aneurysm can suddenly rupture, causing death. But many people have abdominal aneurysms for years without symptoms or medical problems. So you know what to watch for to prevent this silent killer, here are 5 facts you should know about abdominal aneurysms.
1. They are fairly common. According to The Society for Vascular Surgery, abdominal aneurysms affect 200,000 people per year in the United States. This makes them the 15th leading cause of death in the country.
2. There may be no symptoms. Most people experience no symptoms of an abdominal aneurysm until it ruptures, becoming a life-threatening emergency. The majority of abdominal aneurysms are found during routine check-ups or other medical exams.
If the aneurysm becomes large enough to press on surrounding organs, you may experience pain in the belly, chest, lower back, or legs. The pain may come and go or it may be constant. You may also experience a pulsating feeling in your abdomen.
If the aneurysm creates a blood clot that breaks off and impedes blood flow, you may experience discolored skin or sores on your feet and/or toes.
3. They can be caused by a variety of factors. There is no one cause of abdominal aneurysms. Weakness or tears in the aortic wall, genetic factors, and contributing medical conditions are the most common causes of abdominal aneurysms.
Those at greatest risk of abdominal aneurysms include:
- Those over 60
- Those with a history of atherosclerosis
- Those with a family history of abdominal aneurysms (especially first-generation relatives)
- Those with other medical conditions including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, vascular disease, or connective tissue disorders
4. They can be deadly. Many abdominal aneurysms have no symptoms until they present with life or limb-threatening complications. Aneurysms that are undiagnosed or that grow unimpeded can rupture, causing severe internal bleeding and death.
A ruptured aneurysm presents with sudden and severe pain in the belly or back. You may also have an extreme drop in blood pressure or experience signs of shock. A ruptured aneurysm requires immediate medical attention. Up to 80% of people who have a ruptured aneurysm do not survive to get to the hospital, and of those who do only 50% survive 1 month after hospital stay if able to be treated promptly.
5. There are effective treatments. If you’re diagnosed with an abdominal aneurysm, a vascular surgeon can help you determine a proper treatment plan that is tailored to your specific needs. The need for treatment depends on the size and anatomy of your aneurysm, your medical history, and how well you may tolerate a specific procedure.
Non-surgical treatments can be effective in slowing the growth of an aneurysm and are the first line of treatment for aneurysms under 5 centimeters. They include lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation and healthy diet and exercise plans, medications to control high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and routine monitoring of the aneurysm’s growth.
If your abdominal aneurysm is over 5 centimeters or is causing symptoms, surgical intervention may be needed. There are 2 main surgical treatments for abdominal aneurysms:
- An Open Repair procedure inserts an artificial graft through an incision in the abdomen to repair the aneurysm.
- An Endovascular Aneurysm Repair (EVAR) uses specialized tools and X-ray guidance to insert a stent into the aneurysm through the femoral artery in the groin.
If you’re at risk or have been diagnosed with an abdominal aneurysm, schedule a vascular evaluation with Vascular Associates of South Alabama. Our renowned vascular surgeons are specially trained in the most innovative, effective aneurysm treatments as well as advanced methods for diagnosing them in their early stages. They will work closely with you to develop an appropriate treatment plan to fit your unique needs.