Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (AAA)

What is an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA)?

The main blood vessel in your body is the aorta (say: a-or-ta). It is a long blood vessel that reaches from your chest into your abdomen. It carries blood from your heart to the rest of your body. The part of the aorta in your abdomen is called the abdominal aorta. It supplies blood to your stomach, pelvis and legs.

An aneurysm (say: an-yur-izm) is a weak area in a blood vessel. If a blood vessel weakens, it starts to swell like a balloon and becomes abnormally large. If an aneurysm forms on your abdominal aorta and grows too large, your aorta may tear or burst.

What are the symptoms of an AAA?

As the aneurysm develops, there are usually no symptoms. When the aneurysm leaks or tears, you may experience the following:

  • Sudden pain in your abdomen, groin, back, legs or buttocks
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abnormal stiffness in your abdominal muscles
  • Swelling or bulging in one area of your abdomen
  • Clammy skin

Who gets an AAA?

Doctors don’t know what exactly causes an AAA, but aneurysms in general are more common in older people, especially men older than 60 years of age. AAA may also run in families. The following risk factors also can increase your chances of developing an AAA:

  • High blood pressure
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • Emphysema

How can I tell if I have an AAA?

Talk to your doctor if you have a higher risk for an AAA, or if you have any of the symptoms. Your doctor may order a test called an ultrasound. An ultrasound provides a picture of your organs by passing sound waves through your body. It can help measure the size of your aorta.

If you are a man who smokes or have ever smoked, and you are between the ages of 65 and 75, your doctor will probably talk to you about a one-time screening with ultrasound.

Treatment

How is an AAA treated?

If your aneurysm is large or is growing quickly, you will most likely need surgery. If your aneurysm is small, your doctor may just monitor it using ultrasound tests.

It is important to prevent the aneurysm from bursting or tearing. You can help by quitting smoking and by working with your doctor to control your blood pressure and cholesterol.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • If I’ve had one AAA, am I likely to experience another?
  • Are there any lifestyle changes I can make to avoid getting another AAA?
  • Is watchful waiting safe? Is there a chance the AAA could burst?
  • Are there any side effects from AAA that I should be watching for?
  • What should I do if my pain gets worse?
  • Should I visit a specialist?
  • Do you have any educational materials I could read?
  • Are there any web sites you recommend where I can learn more about AAA?

Citations

  • Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm by GR Upchurch, Jr., M.D. and TA Schaub, M.D. ( 04/01/06, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20060401/1198.html)