Blood flows through the body via a network of blood vessels made up of arteries and veins. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to our organs and muscles, making it possible for them to function properly. Veins bring blood and carbon dioxide back towards the lungs, helping rid the body of "waste" while replenishing its supply of oxygen. Occasionally, these blood vessels sustain damage.
An aneurysm is a bulge or ballooning in the wall of a weakened or thinning artery resulting from the dilatation of the artery. This increased volume puts pressure on surrounding organs. Serious complications can arise if an artery ruptures.
Artery dilatation can occur anywhere in the body. However, the three most common areas for aneurysms to form are the aorta, known as an aortic aneurysm, the brain, known as a cerebral aneurysm and the limbs, known as an aneurysm of the limbs. Aortic aneurysms are the most common type and occur when an aneurysm becomes lodged in the aorta. The aorta, which is the largest artery in the body, carries blood away from the heart. The role of this large blood vessel is to distribute blood to the limbs and organs. To direct the blood to the proper area, the aorta branches off in various directions and these points are choice locations for aneurysms to form. Cerebral aneurysms generally become lodged in the arteries of the brain while aneurysms of the limbs lodge themselves in arteries located in the upper or lower limbs.
Atherosclerosis, the leading cause of aneurysms, is a disease characterized by the accumulation of fatty deposits in the arteries which weakens and deteriorates the artery walls. Those who suffer from atherosclerosis however, will not necessarily have an aneurysm since genetic factors seem to play a major role in the development of aneurysms. Injury or congenital defects may also contribute to aneurysms.
Persons most at risk
Certain individuals are more predisposed to developing an aneurysm. Men, the elderly, those with high blood pressure and those with a family history of aneurysms are more likely to develop them. High cholesterol, smoking, inactivity and obesity also increase one's risk since they are risk factors associated with heart disease.
Symptoms vary depending on the location of the aneurysm. If one is experiencing several symptoms, it is important to consult a physician without delay.
Abdominal aortic aneurysm
The ballooning of a section of the aorta compresses certain vital organs which hinder their functioning. The following symptoms may therefore occur:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Thoracic and abdominal pain
- Pulsating sensation in the abdomen
- Difficulty breathing
When complications arise, a ruptured aneurysm often results in fatal haemorrhage.
The most common symptoms of a brain or cerebral aneurysm are:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe headache
- Vision impairment
The rupture of a cerebral aneurysm can cause haemorrhaging which may result in a cerebrovascular accident (CVA), also known as a stroke.
Aneurysm of the limbs
The most common symptoms associated with an aneurysm of the limbs include:
- Claudication (limping)
Diagnosis is made by a physician. By palpating the body, the physician can identify an excrescence (growth) and feel pulsations. Also, by listening to the heartbeat, the physician can hear a bruit indicating the presence of an aneurysm. A scan or an ultrasound can also be useful in confirming the diagnosis. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and arteriography (whereby a small camera is inserted into the arteries) are also highly effective for locating and assessing the size of aneurysms.
Treatment and Prevention
A physician has several treatment options to offer an individual with an aneurysm. He can recommend a watch and wait approach to see whether the aneurysm will pass. A physician who chooses this route will have to monitor his patient very closely and keep an eye on any changes in the patient's condition. Lifestyle changes are also recommended, both from a prevention and treatment perspective. A low-fat diet, regular exercise, quitting smoking and bringing one's blood pressure under control are healthy habits that will help limit the risk of developing an aneurysm.
Surgery can also be an option. When opting for surgery, the physician can partially or completely remove the aneurysm by inserting a catheter into the artery and replacing the ruptured artery with a synthetic graft.