What Is an Aortic Dissection?

What Is an Aortic Dissection?

Aortic dissection is a serious condition that can lead to instant death.

The aorta, which passes out of the heart from the left ventricle and runs down in front of the backbone, is the main artery of the body that supplies oxygenated blood to the circulatory system. An aortic dissection is a tear in between one of the three walls of the aorta, explains Fernando Fleischman, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Keck Medicine of USC, co-director of the USC Comprehensive Aortic Center and associate professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

When this happens, blood enters an area where it should not. This is a deadly problem that is usually caused by high blood pressure, and the patient is at risk of having their aorta get bigger and/or rupture, which leads to death.

Here are 6 things to know about aortic dissection, according to Fleischman.

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1. Anyone can be affected.

Aortic dissections affect people of all ages but are most common among people in their mid 30s to late 80s. Some people may think that dissections are related to heart disease, but they are not.

2. An aortic dissection causes severe chest pain.

The number one sign of an aortic dissection is rip-roaring chest pain that radiates to your back. The pain tends to be acute, severe and constant.

3. There are 2 types of aortic dissections.

There are 2 types of aortic dissections: type A (ascending) and type B (descending).

  • Type A dissections come right out of the heart. The tear from type A dissections can cut off the coronary arteries, which surround and supply the heart. A type A dissection can also cause a stroke and cut off the carotids (the two main arteries that carry blood to the head, neck and brain and their two main branches).
  • Type B dissections involve the thoracic aorta, which is the part of the aorta located in the thorax. Type B dissections can cause the artery to become excessively enlarged due to the weakening of the artery wall. They can also cut off blood flow to vessels of the abdomen or legs. They can also become big and risk rupturing, which causes death.

4. Time is of the essence.

Following an aortic dissection, the patient only has a couple hours to live, so action needs to be taken immediately.

Type A dissections require a major operation. The patient needs to be cooled down to prevent any blood flow, and the cardiac surgeon has to replace the actual aorta with a plastic tube so blood can go back to the brain.

Type B dissections are handled with a team approach. If the dissection happens before the artery branches off, it can be treated with a stent, which is a round device that diverts blood flow within the artery and other blood pressure controls. The other option is medical therapy, which is why a team approach is necessary.

5. You can take steps to prevent one.

One of the most effective ways to prevent an aortic dissection is to manage your blood pressure by dieting and staying away from foods with high sodium.

6. You should speak to a physician if you have these risk factors.

It’s a good idea to visit your physician if you:

  • Have a family history of aneurysm or dissections
  • Have blood pressure above 130 mmHg that has been uncontrolled for years
  • Have high blood pressure and chest pain of any kind
  • Are a smoker with chest pain and a history of aneurysm

Are you concerned about your risk for an aortic dissection? Our expert cardiovascular team can help. If you are in the Los Angeles area, request an appointment or call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273).