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What Does Your Aorta Do? Its Failure Can Be Deadly

For many of us, it happens 115,200 times every day — including weekends and holidays. What’s happening is the miracle of the heartbeat. Add it all up and your heart beats billions of times throughout your life.

Now think of the pressure that repetitive pumping puts on your circulatory system. You can feel the pressure in your pulse in the wrist or beside your throat. Your aorta is the blood vessel coming out of your heart to feed your entire body. You can imagine the pressure your aorta is subjected to every day.

Unfortunately, your aorta can weaken over time due to issues such as a hereditary weakness, a disease such as diabetes, an injury, smoking or high cholesterol, aging or hardening of the arteries (called atherosclerosis).

When the aorta weakens, blood pressure can cause a bulge in the aorta. We call the bulge an aortic aneurysm. Since the aorta is the vessel that carries blood to your brain and the rest of the body, an aortic aneurysm can be dangerous if it continues to expand. The aneurysm can cause a blood clot to develop. If the clot breaks away, it can increase the chances of a stroke. Monitoring an aortic aneurysm requires professional medical care. 

Signs of an aortic aneurysm

You could have an aortic aneurysm and not realized it. Small aneurysms are generally not dangerous if they don’t expand.

An aneurysm can grow for years. If it gets large enough, it can press on nearby organs or block the blood flow.

We divide the aorta in two sections and call the section of the aorta in your chest the thoracic aorta. The abdominal aorta is predictably the section in your abdomen.

Symptoms of an aortic aneurysm can vary depending on its location. 

Thoracic aortic aneurysm symptoms may include: 

  • Coughing, hoarseness or difficulty breathing
  • Pain in your jaw, neck, upper back or chest 

Abdominal aortic aneurysm symptoms may include:

  • A pulsating, tender mass in the lower part of your abdomen
  • Pain in your back, abdomen or groin not relieved with pain medication or changing positions

If an aneurysm is small, a health care professional may continue to monitor its size and extent. If the aneurysm expands and becomes a more significant concern, surgery may become an option. The doctor will review options with the patient.

In more advanced cases, your aorta can tear or rupture under the pressure, prompting internal bleeding. We call this an aortic dissection. Symptoms include:

  • Fainting
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Tearing or ripping pain in your chest
  • Weakness

If you experience these symptoms, see your health care professional immediately. An aortic rupture is a life-threatening medical emergency.

A new approach for enhancing care

Helping people keep their circulatory systems, including the aorta, healthy and working well is one of the reasons why doctors urge people to exercise, quit smoking, control cholesterol levels and manage conditions such as diabetes.

The Aurora Health Care Comprehensive Aortic Center

To enhance the care available to patients who suffer from aortic issues, including aneurysms, tears and ruptures, Aurora Health Care has created the Comprehensive Aortic Center (CAC). It coordinates care provided by a multidisciplinary team of professionals.

The Comprehensive Aortic Center, based in Milwaukee, has three goals:

  • Provide world-class patient care in a coordinated team setting.
  • Advance the science of aortic care and treatment of aortic diseases through focused research and ongoing innovation.
  • Educate patients, the community and other health care professionals about aortic disease, its prevention and state-of-the-art technology and treatments.

The CAC has two areas of focus:

  • Emergency care — When a patient is admitted with an aortic aneurysm that has ruptured, a carefully coordinated team will swing into action to provide the quickest and most effective treatment possible for this life-threatening condition.
  • Care for chronic conditions — Since aortic disease’s progress can be slow, professionals at the CAC will work with health care providers across the Aurora footprint to monitor patients treating for aortic disorders. If and when needed, patients can be referred for more extensive care.

A coordinator works closely with patients and directs the services of the CAC. The coordinator for all CAC services can be reached at 844-WI-Aorta.

Surgical procedures are performed at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center. Patients will receive their follow-up care at their home health care centers.

If you have questions or concerns about your heart health or the health of a loved one, visiting your local health care professional is an ideal first step. If advanced care is needed, a collaborative team of specialists is available to help through the Comprehensive Aortic Center.

Meet the Author

Louie N. Kostopoulos, MD is a Cardiovascular Disease physician at Aurora Cardiovascular Services in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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