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Aortic Dissection

  • Definition

    Aortic dissection occurs when the layers of the aorta separate. The aorta is the main artery leading from the heart. Arterial walls have three layers. A tear in an inner layer can admit blood under pressure that works its way between layers, causing the layers to dissect apart or separate. This process can squeeze off the main channel so that blood cannot get through the main aorta or any of its branches.
    This is a life-threatening event since it can cause stroke , sudden cardiac arrest , or death to impaired blood flow to a number of vital organs. The enlarging mass of misdirected blood can also compromise nearby structures, such as the airways, lungs, or heart. It may also rupture with catastrophic bleeding.
    Heart and Main Vessels
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  • Causes

    Aortic dissection is usually caused by elevated high blood pressure or a diseased aorta. This usually is the result of atherosclerosis .
  • Risk Factors

    Factors that may increase your chance of aortic dissection include:
  • Symptoms

    Aortic dissection may cause:
    • Sudden, ripping pain in the chest and or back
    • Stroke
    • Fainting
    • Shortness of breath
    • Sudden weakness
  • Diagnosis

    Aortic dissection is a usually a sudden, catastrophic event that results in a medical emergency. At the hospital, the doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Imaging tests evaluate the aorta and surrounding structures. These may include:
    • Chest x-ray
    • CT scan of chest and abdomen
    • MRI scan of chest and abdomen
    • Echocardiogram
    • Aortography—x-rays taken after dye is injected into the aorta through a surgically placed catheter
  • Treatment

    Treatment depends on where in the aorta the dissection occurs. Once stabilized, you will be further evaluated for the type of treatment needed. One type of aortic dissection requires immediate major surgery. Another type can often be managed without surgery (if no blood vessels are obstructed).
    Treatment options may include:
    The chest is opened, and the aorta is repaired. A stent may be used to replace the damaged segment of aorta.
    Medical Treatment
    Your blood pressure will be reduced to minimize stress on the aorta. You may undergo repeat imaging studies every 6-12 months to detect further dissection.
  • Prevention

    To help reduce your chance of aortic dissection:
    • Keep high blood pressure and cholesterol under control through diet and/or medications
    • Talk to your doctor about any risk factors you may have for aortic dissection

    American Heart Association

    Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians


    Health Canada

    The College of Family Physicians of Canada


    Aortic dissection. The Merck Manual Professional Edition website. Available at: Updated May 2014. Accessed August 20, 2014.

    Isselbacher K, et al. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. 14th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 1998.

    Mukherjee D, Eagle KA. Aortic dissection–an update. Curr Probl Cardiol. 2005 Jun;30(6):287-325.

    Thoracic aortic aneurysm and dissection. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated August 11, 2014. Accessed August 20, 2014.

    8/20/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Jacobs JE, Latson LA, et al. American College of Radiology (ACR) Appropriateness Criteria for acute chest pain: suggested aortic dissection. Available at: Updated 2014. Accessed August 20, 2014.

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