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Since There Are No Early Symptoms, Is There A Way To Know If I Have An Aortic Aneurysm Before It Ruptures?

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Dr. Richard Cambria describes an aortic aneurysm and recalls the numerous risk factors associated with the condition.

Dr. Cambria:
An aortic aneurysm can be most simply thoughts of as a weakening or ballooning of the aorta which is the body’s major and largest blood vessel. That’s important because this ballooning or weakening can eventually lead to the aneurysm bursting, which is usually a fatal event.

Aneurysms have been referred to as the ‘silent killer’ because in most cases these aortic aneurysms cause no symptoms or problems prior to bursting. Most aortic aneurysms occur in older patients, but there are a clearly defined set of risk factors which makes certain patients at higher risk of developing aortic aneurysms. These include, most importantly, a family history of aortic aneurysm disease, and by family history I mean, if your mother or father or a brother or sister had an aortic aneurysm, you are clearly at increased risk of developing an aneurysm.

20% of the patients that we treat for aortic aneurysms have a positive family history of aneurysm disease. You are also at higher risk for developing an aortic aneurysm if you are female, if you have a history of high blood pressure, if you have been a cigarette smoker, and if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or emphysema, which is in turn related to long-term cigarette smoking.

If you are at risk for developing an aortic aneurysm there are simple diagnostic x-ray studies such as ultrasounds and CAT scans to accurately diagnose number one, whether or not an aneurysm is present, and more importantly, if it is present, to measure just how large it is because that’s the single most important factor in determining whether or not your aneurysm needs to be treated.

It’s important to detect and monitor aortic aneurysms before they reach the stage of bursting because treatment is then usually successful with an expected excellent recovery. Treatment of aortic aneurysms today is very effective and involves replacing the aneurysm with an artificial blood vessel.

There are a variety of different surgical treatments, some of them including minimally invasive operations known as stent grafts, which are applied today in many patients.

Mass General has been a leader in the northeast in the successful management of aortic aneurysms. More than a decade ago, we formed the Mass General Thoracic Aortic Center, which is a team-approach of vascular surgeons, cardiac or heart surgeons, and cardiologists to effectively manage thoracic aneurysms which are often the most challenging and clinically complex to treat.

About Dr. Richard Paul Cambria, M.D.:
Richard P. Cambria, M.D. is Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School and Chief, Division of Vascular/Endovascular Surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Cambria received his medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, in 1977. He trained in general and vascular surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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