Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm

Treating Cardiovascular Diseases in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois

The aorta is the largest artery in your body. It passes through your chest and abdomen to carry oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of the body.

Sometimes a balloon-shaped bulge occurs in the aortic artery, causing it to distend and weaken. This condition is known as an aortic aneurysm. When the aneurysm occurs in the chest portion of the aortic artery, it is known as a thoracic aortic aneurysm, or TAA.

Thoracic aortic aneurysms affect about 15,000 people in the United States each year. Most TAAs occur when the walls of the aorta weaken and a section close to the heart enlarges. This prevents the valve between the heart and aorta from closing properly, allowing blood to leak back into the heart.

A less common type of TAA can develop in the upper back, away from the heart. It often stems from a severe trauma to the chest, such as a car accident or fall. 

Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm Symptoms

Aneurysms can develop and grow for years without causing any signs or symptoms. Symptoms of a thoracic aortic aneurysm tend to appear when the aneurysm grows large enough to press on nearby body parts or block blood flow. When this occurs, symptoms may include:

  • Chest or back pain
  • Coughing, hoarseness or difficulty breathing
  • Pain in the jaw, neck and upper back

All too often, symptoms of thoracic aortic aneurysmfirst appear when the artery wall dissects. A dissection occurs when layers of the aorta tear and separate from each other, causing internal bleeding. As with aneurysms, many aortic dissections do not cause symptoms. Other times, they may cause the following:

  • Severe, sharp or stabbing pain in your chest or upper
  • Pain in your chest and arms

If you experience symptoms of a thoracic aortic aneurysm or aortic dissection, notify your physician immediately. Left untreated, these conditions could lead to a fatal rupture.

Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm Causes and Risks

Thoracic aortic aneurysms most often stem from atherosclerosis, a condition known as hardening of the arteries. The following conditions and factors increase your risk for atherosclerosis:

  • A family history of cardiovascular disease
  • Being overweight or obese
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking

Your risk for developing a thoracic aortic aneurysm also increases if you have any of the following diseases and conditions:

  • A severe fall or accident
  • Advancing age
  • Being male
  • Bicuspid aortic valve
  • Family history of aneurysms
  • Marfan syndrome and other connective disuse disorders
  • Syphilis
  • Tuberculosis

Diagnosing Abdominal Aortic Aneurysms

Because a thoracic aortic aneurysm often has no symptoms, it is easy for this condition to go undiagnosed. This allows the aneurysm to grow larger, increasing your risk or a dissection or rupture.

It is important to be aware of your risks and to recognize possible warning signs or symptoms. If a thoracic aortic aneurysm is suspected, your physician may order any of the following tests:

  • Angiography
  • Cardiac computed tomography, also known as a CT angiogram
  • Chest X-ray
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Ultrasound testing, also known as echocardiography or transthoracic echocardiography (TEE)

Treating Thoracic Aortic Aneurysms

Treatment depends on the size and location of the thoracic aortic aneurysm and your overall health. If the thoracic aortic aneurysm is small and not causing any symptoms, your physician may simply monitor you condition with periodic testing every six to 12 months.

If your aneurysm is large or causing symptoms, it should be treated with medications to lower your blood pressure, relax your blood vessels and reduce the risk of rupture or dissection.

If your condition requires additional treatment, you doctor may recommend either of the following procedures:

A Leader in Treating Thoracic Aortic Aneurysms

Aurora Health Care established the Center for Marfan and Aortic Disorders, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to diagnose and treat complex conditions involving the aorta.

We provide individualized treatment plans diagnose, evaluate and treat thoracic aortic aneurysms. We can also help you adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle. To learn more, please call the Center for Marfan and Aortic Disorders at 414-385-2400 or toll free 855-229-2400.

Aurora doctors are conveniently located throughout eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. Find a doctor or heart specialist near you. To get a second opinion or if you need assistance finding a provider, please call 888-649-6892.