What is an aneurysm?
An aneurysm is an abnormal, blood-filled bulge that forms in a weak area of a blood vessel wall. Blood pressure forces the weakened area to balloon outward. This can happen in any part of the body but is most common in the brain, or parts of the aorta, the largest blood vessel in the body. An aneurysm can be fatal if it ruptures and triggers a stroke or massive haemorrhage. If this happens, it must be treated immediately as a medical emergency. Call 999 and ask for an ambulance.
Types of aneurysm
There are many kinds of aneurysms. The two most common are:
- Aortic aneurysm
- Cerebral aneurysm
Aortic aneurysm overview
The abdominal aorta is the largest blood vessel in the body, pumping blood from the heart and supplying the rest of the body with oxygen. Normally, the aorta is about the width of a garden hose, but an aneurysm can widen it to more than double its normal size.
Risk factors for aortic aneurysm
Aortic aneurysms are most common in men over 65. One in 25 of this age group is affected in the UK and screening for them is available on the NHS.
Other risk factors include:
- High fat diet
- Lack of exercise or sedentary lifestyle.
Symptoms of aortic aneurysm
In most cases there are no symptoms and no serious risk, unless the aortic aneurysm ruptures.
Signs of unruptured aortic aneurysm may include:
- Pain in the abdomen or lower back extending into the groin and legs
- An unusual pulsing or vibrating lump or sensation near the belly button
The chief sign of a ruptured aortic aneurysm is sudden, extremely severe abdominal pain, often described as a "ripping or tearing" sensation. Other symptoms include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Dizziness or faintness
- Difficulty breathing
- Sweating or clammy skin
- Loss of consciousness
Ruptured aortic aneurysms occur in about 1 in 10,000 people a year.
Treating aortic aneurysms
There are two types of treatment for aneurysms:
A ruptured aneurysm is a medical emergency, so call 999 immediately. It can cause massive internal bleeding, which is fatal for 4 out of 5 people affected.
Your risk of rupture will be assessed and a course of action will be decidedthat may include:
- Active observation - regular checkups and monitoring of the aneurysm
- Lifestyle changes - diet improvement, weight loss and quitting smoking
- Medicine for underlying conditions such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure
- Surgery that removes the affected section of the aorta and replaces it with a graft
Surgery options include:
- Open surgery - where an abdominal incision is made and synthetic tubing graft is inserted
- Endovascular surgery - where a catheter is threaded through arteries in the legs and the graft is guided through to reinforce the wall of the aorta.
- Surgery is only recommended if your risk is significant, because of the inherent risk of surgical complications. Your doctors will advise you on the best option for you.