Health Conditions

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Aortic dissection


Aortic dissection is a potentially life-threatening condition in which there is bleeding into and along the wall of the aorta, the major artery leaving the heart.


Aortic dissection most often occurs because of a tear or damage to the inner wall of the aorta. This usually occurs in the thoracic (chest) portion of the artery, but may also occur in the abdominal portion.

The aorta has different branches through which blood flows. An aortic dissection is classified as type A or B depending on where it begins and ends.

  • Type A begins in the first (ascending) part of the aorta and typically moves to another part of the chest.
  • Type B begins in the last (descending) part of the aorta and moves down the abdomen.

When a tear occurs, it creates two channels: One in which blood continues to travel and another where blood remains still. As the aortic dissection grows bigger, the channel with nontraveling blood can get bigger and push on other branches of the aorta.

An aortic dissection may also involve abnormal widening or ballooning of the aorta (aneurysm).

The exact cause is unknown, but risks include atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and high blood pressure. Traumatic injury is a major cause of aortic dissection, especially blunt trauma to the chest as can be caused by hitting the steering wheel of a car during an accident.

Other risk factors and conditions associated with the development of aortic dissection including:

  • Bicuspid aortic valve
  • Coarctation (narrowing) of the aorta
  • Connective tissue disorders
  • Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
  • Heart surgery or procedures
  • Marfan syndrome
  • Pregnancy
  • Pseudoxanthoma elasticum
  • Vascular inflammation due to conditions such as arteritis and syphilis

Aortic dissection occurs in approximately 2 out of every 10,000 people. It can affect anyone, but is most often seen in men aged 40 to 70.


The symptoms usually begin suddenly, and include severe chest pain. The pain may:

  • Be described as sharp, stabbing, tearing, or ripping
  • Be felt below the chest bone, then moves under the shoulder blades or to the back
  • Move to shoulder, neck, arm, jaw, abdomen, or hips
  • Change position -- pain typically moves to the arms and legs as the aortic dissection gets worse

Other symptoms may include:

  • Changes in thought ability, confusion, disorientation
  • Decreased movement, any part of the body
  • Decreased sensation, any part of the body
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry skin
  • Fainting
  • Intense anxiety, anguish
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pallor
  • Profuse sweating (clammy skin)
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Shortness of breath -- difficulty breathing when lying flat (orthopnea)
  • Thirst


The goal of treatment is to prevent complications. Hospitalization is required.

Type A aortic dissections require surgery to repair the aorta. Type B aortic dissections may be treated with medication.

Drugs that lower blood pressure may be prescribed. These drugs may be given through a vein (intravenously). Strong pain relievers are usually needed. Heart medications such as beta-blockers may reduce some of the symptoms.

Surgery to repair or replace the damaged section of aorta can cure the condition in some cases. If the aortic valve is damaged, valve replacement is necessary. If the heart arteries are involved, a coronary bypass is also performed.


Aortic dissection is life threatening. The condition can be cured with surgery if it is done before the aorta ruptures. Less than half of patients with ruptured aorta survive.


Proper treatment and control of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and high blood pressure may reduce your risk of aortic dissection. Tight control of blood pressure in patients at risk of dissection is very important. Drugs such as angiotensin receptor blockers, ACE inhibitors, and beta-blockers may reduce the likelihood of dissection.

Take safety precautions to prevent injuries, which can cause dissections.

Many cases of aortic dissection cannot be prevented.