Aortic dissection is a medical emergency

By: Jeffrey Altshuler, M.D., cardiovascular surgeon, MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute, Long Beach Medical Center

The aorta is the body’s main artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. It consists of three layers and if one of the layers gets torn it causes a life-threatening condition, called an aortic dissection. When this happens, blood goes between the gap in the layers, which decreases blood flow to the rest of the body. It also could cause an aortic aneurysm. This is when there is an enlargement in the walls of the aorta, that could potentially burst.

Aortic dissections are characterized by severe, unrelenting, sudden pain in the chest, back or abdomen. It often has similar signs of a stroke, where the person’s conscious is affected and they feel weakness on one side of the body. It most commonly affects men older than 60, but anyone can be at risk.

Causes of aortic dissections include genetic conditions, including connective tissue and inflammatory conditions, or a congenital heart condition. They also can be caused by extremely high blood pressure, previous aneurysms on trauma to the aorta. An aortic dissection can only be diagnosed through imaging, so it’s important to seek urgent medical care with the onset of symptoms.

The type of treatment provided depends on the dissection’s location within the aorta. If it is in the ascending aorta (closest to the heart), emergency surgery is required to replace the diseased segment of the aorta with a Dacron (synthetic) graft. Dissections in the descending aorta are managed with medication and close blood pressure control.

The Comprehensive Aortic Program, part of the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Medical Center, is dedicated to the early detection, monitoring and treatment of various aortic diseases using evidence-based treatments. Experts from multiple disciplines provide comprehensive and complementary expertise in the Comprehensive Aortic Program: cardiology, cardiac surgery, vascular and endovascular surgery, interventional radiology, and medical genetics.

Advanced imaging and nuclear medicine provides state-of-the-art diagnostic testing for accurate measurement and assessment. A specific treatment plan, including lifelong follow-up care, is designed to address all aspects of aortic, cardiac and vascular disease, and developed for each patient based on their unique needs.

Patients and their families are key members of this team approach to treatment which includes medical therapy, lifestyle modifications, ongoing monitoring and potentially elective procedures and operations. The most important factor to minimize the strain on the aorta is appropriately managing blood pressure.

Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for patients with aortic dissection. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms, like severe, unrelenting pain or weakness on one side of the body, don’t delay. Seek care immediately.

For more information about the Comprehensive Aortic Program, call (833) FIX-AORTA (833-349-2678) or visit memorialcare.org/Aorta.

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