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Thoracic aortic aneurysm
The aorta is the main artery (vessel that
carries oxygen-rich blood to the body)
that comes of the left side of your heart.
It comes out of the heart upwards
(ascending aorta) and then arches
backwards (aortic arch) and
downwards (descending aorta) through
the chest into the abdomen (abdominal
aorta) and into the arteries in the legs –
see Figure 1, right above.
The thoracic aorta
The thoracic aorta is the section of the
aorta that is in the chest. The aorta
continues on below this into the
abdomen. At the bottom of the
ascending aorta is the aortic valve. This
opens to allow blood to be pumped
through it and then closes to prevent
the blood going back towards the heart. The
heart, the aortic valve and the aorta all work
together. See Figure 2, righ
Figure 1 – The aorta
An aortic aneurysm is when part of the aorta
bulges or balloons out, usually where the wall
of the aorta is weak. The normal width of the
thoracic aorta is 2.8–4.5cm. This can vary
with age, and weight. When the aorta is 1.5
times the size of the normal aorta, it is
diagnosed as an aortic aneurysm. See
Figure 3 on page 2. With time an aneurysm
may get larger, which can cause problems
(see ‘Complications of thoracic aortic
An aneurysm can develop at any point along
divided according to where they occur. The most
common place is in the abdomen (called an
abdominal aortic aneurysm or AAA). In this case, the
problem will be dealt with by vascular surgeons
(specialising in arteries and veins). An aneurysm that
occurs in the chest (called a thoracic aortic aneurysm
or TAA) is dealt with mainly by cardiac surgeons
specialising in the heart). They will often deal the
roblem jointly with vascular surgeons.
The blood in the aorta is under pressure as it is
pumped from the heart. The wall of this artery has to
be strong enough to resist this pressure, but still
flexible enough to return to its normal shape when
after a pulse of blood has passed through. An
aneurysm (bulging of the aorta) usually occurs where
the wall has become weak and has lost its elastic
properties, so it doesn’t return to its normal shape.
See Figure 3 right.
The causes that lead to a weakened aortic wall and aneurysm include:
weakening of the artery wall from smoking or high blood pressure
tearing of the artery wall (dissection) as a result of high blood pressure
arteriosclerosis (a condition where arteries become clogged up by fatty substances)
congenital weakness of the artery wall (something you are born with)
inherited conditions such as Marfan syndrome (a rare disorder affecting connective
trauma (usually from falls or motor vehicle accidents).
Sometimes the cause of an aneurysm is not clear. Unless they are caused by trauma, they do
A thoracic aneurysm is often found accidentally during investigations for other medical
conditions. You might not have experienced any symptoms, or will have had some, but not
associated them with this condition. Some symptoms may occur as a result of the aortic
aneurysm pressing on their surrounding structures, including:
pain in the jaw, neck, and upper back
a persistent cough
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The treatment you receive will depend on a number of factors, such as the size of the aneurysm
and its location. If you have not had a computerised tomography (CT) scan then, we (or your
referring hospital) may request for you to have this so we can assess this information. Our aortic
team will assess the CT images and we will ask you to attend a clinic to meet an aortic cardiac
surgeon and/or aortic vascular surgeon, to discuss your treatment and management plan.
There are three main treatments / management plans that the consultant may discuss with you.
general health, medical history, views and beliefs.
If your TAA is small, your surgeon may recommend ‘watchful waiting’. This means you will be
monitored with echocardiograms (scans used to look at the heart and nearby blood vessels also
– called ‘echos’) and CT scans. They will be carried out every six or 12 months, to see if there
are signs of changes in your aneurysm. If your aneurysm is being monitored, it is because the
surgeon has reviewed the images and feels that the aneurysm isn’t large enough to need
surgery. How fast the aneurysm grows (if at all) varies depending on the individual. Your
surgeon will tell you when they think you need surgery.
If your TAA is large (5 to 5.5cm or larger) and is causing symptoms, or if you have a hereditary
condition such as Marfan’s syndrome, your surgeon may recommend that the section of aorta
with the aneurysm is surgically replaced. This will be performed by open heart surgery, meaning
the chest is cut open. The section of the aorta that has the aneurysm is then removed and
replaced by a new aorta that is made from a man-made (synthetic) material. The material
causes very few reactions, does not have harmful chemicals, and easily tolerated by the body.
For more information on the procedure, please ask the surgeon.
If we decide you should have this surgery, we will give you more information and ask you to
attend a pre-operative clinic, where we will carry out a series of tests to prepare you for surgery.
We will give you time to ask any questions and address any concerns you might have before
your admission. If you wish to find out more information about heart surgery please see our
leaflet Having heart surgery.
A stent is a tube that is surgically inserted into an artery to allow blood to flow freely. Depending
on where your aortic aneurysm is and how large it is, you may be able to have a stent put in. If
so, we will refer you to a surgeon. The procedure is called a thoracic endovascular aortic repair
(TEVAR). It involves making a small cut in the groin and passing the stent into the aorta and
putting it across the aneurysm. This approach is less invasive but it is not suitable for all
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This is when the weakened wall of the aorta tears, causing blood to leak between the layers that
make up this wall. This can be ‘acute’ (happens suddenly) or ‘chronic’ (happens slowly over
weeks/months). Unless this is treated, it may cause a reduced blood flow down the aorta and to
important parts of the body. It can also lead to massive bleeding and can cause a rupture (see
This is when all the layers of the aorta wall tear, causing blood to leak out from the aorta. This
can stop blood being pumped round the body, so it is usually life-threatening and very few
people survive it.
Heart failure is a condition caused by the heart failing to pump enough blood around the body at
the right pressure. This can occur if the aneurysm gets large enough that it pulls the aortic valve
open. This normally happens if the aneurysm is at the bottom of the aorta (the aortic root) or the
ascending aorta. If the aortic valve doesn’t close after the blood is pumped through it, this
allows the blood to flow backwards into the heart (called ‘aortic regurgitation’). This can increase
the pressure in the left ventricle (one of the chambers of the heart). The heart can make up for
his by working harder for a time, but eventually the heart cannot do this anymore and the
umping ability of the heart is permanently affected.
If you have a TAA, a range of different health professionals will care for you. As well as the
perform the CT scans and report the results and geneticists, who will be able to look at any
inherited causes of aneurysms. Which health professionals you see will depend on exactly
where your aneurysm is.
The thoracic aortic aneurysm will not get better, but there are certain things you can do to slow
down its growth and prevent any further complications
The most important step is to control your blood pressure. The British Heart Foundation
pressure recorded by the nurses at your GP practice, but we recommend that you buy or
borrow a home blood pressure machine and take your blood pressure regularly. We suggest
that you take your blood pressure least three times a week, at varied times in the day and write
down the result so you can let your GP or Consultant know when you see them. Your GP can
advise you further on ways of improving your blood pressure, or you may need to take
medication to maintain your blood pressure at the recommended levels.
We also advise you to keep your heart and aorta healthy. You can do this by:
maintaining good blood sugar levels if you are diabetic
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having a healthy diet
There are also things to avoid:
Don’t do any exercise that involves short bursts of activity, such as lifting excessive weight,
as this can increase your blood pressure and put an increased strain on your aorta. A way to
remember this is avoid anything that will make you grunt or groan.
Avoid being constipated, as the strain will increase your blood pressure.
Vinnie N Bapat
Michael M Sabetai
Christopher P Young
Vascular/ aortic surgeons
You may find our leaflet Having heart surgery useful. Please ask a member of the team for a
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Date published: December 2015
Review date: December 2018
© 2015 Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust