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Abdominal aortic aneurysm

Your blood vessels are the transport system that carries blood to and from your heart, to the rest of your body. Usually, everything runs pretty smoothly with this system, but sometimes there can be a problem. For example, one of the large blood vessels that supplies blood to your abdomen and lower body can swell up or bulge. This bulge is called an abdominal aortic aneurysm, and it can be pretty serious if it breaks open, or ruptures. Let's talk about abdominal aortic aneurysm.

This is the descending aorta, one of the large blood vessels that sends blood to your abdomen and legs. Over a period of many years, this blood vessel can start to bulge. Although doctors aren't sure exactly what causes an aneurysm, they do know that it's more common in males over 60 and people who are overweight, who smoke, or who have high blood pressure or cholesterol. Eventually, if not treated, the aneurysm can pop open or rupture, and spill blood into your abdominal cavity or into the wall of the artery. If an aneurysm ruptures, it is considered a true medical emergency.

So, how do you find out if you have an aneurysm?

You may not realize that you have one, because often aneurysms don't cause any symptoms until they rupture. An imaging test like a CT scan or ultrasound may help in finding a suspected aneurysm. If it does break open, you may feel severe pain in your stomach. That pain may spread to your groin, buttocks, or legs. You could also feel sick to your stomach, have clammy skin, and your heart may beat faster than normal.

If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor, who can examine you. Your doctor may also recommend an imaging test to see for sure if you have an aneurysm.

Treatments for aneurysms vary depending on how severe the aneurysm is. If you're not having symptoms, and your aneurysm is small and hasn't broken open, your doctor may suggest just checking it every six months to make sure it doesn't get bigger. If it's bigger than 2 inches, you'll probably need to have surgery. The goal is to perform surgery before complications and symptoms develop. The surgeon will replace the damaged, bulging section of blood vessel with a section of man-made vessel, commonly called a graft.

It's better to avoid getting an aneurysm than to have to treat it. Eat a healthy diet, watch your cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and quit smoking to help prevent an aneurysm from forming in the first place. Men who are over the age of 65 and have ever smoked or who have a close relative who's had an abdominal aortic aneurysm should have one screening ultrasound done to check for an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

If you're having any symptoms of an abdominal aneurysm, like severe pain in your belly or back, it's very important that you get medical help right away. Go to the emergency room or call your health care provider for immediate help. Small aneurysms are easy to treat with surgery. But once they get larger and rupture, they can be life threatening.

Review Date: 2/19/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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