Home > Patients & Visitors > Health Library > Aortic Dissection
Aortic dissection occurs when a small tear develops in the wall of the aorta. The tear forms a new channel between the inner and outer layers of the aortic wall. This causes bleeding into the channel and can enlarge the tear. Aortic dissection is a life-threatening condition.
Aortic dissection can be caused by atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and high blood pressure, traumatic injury to the chest, such as being hit by the steering wheel of a car during an accident, and conditions that are present at birth, such as Marfan's syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
The key point in prevention of aortic dissection is managing high blood pressure. Minimizing this and other risk factors for atherosclerosis greatly reduces the risk of aortic dissection.
Any one or any combination of the following may cause aortic dissection:
A family history of aortic dissection is also a risk factor.
Pregnancy can also increase the risk of a dissection. This risk is caused by the combination of hormonal effect on the tissue structure (elastin fibers) and additional high blood pressure stress.
Illegal drugs that raise blood pressure, such as cocaine, increase the risk of a dissection.
Pain is the leading symptom of aortic dissection. A person typically has a sudden onset of pain at the moment of dissection. The pain is usually described as ripping or tearing and as the worst pain ever experienced. It is usually in between the shoulders on the back and might radiate to the arms or the neck. Less frequently, the pain can be felt as chest pain. The pain is very difficult to distinguish from that of angina or a heart attack.
Other symptoms may include:
If you experience these symptoms, you should call 911 or other emergency services immediately.
Do not drive yourself as time is important and stress and movement should be reduced to a minimum. Do not try to take pain medicine or heart medicine. Taking aspirin with aortic dissections can be fatal.
If you witness a person become unconscious, call 911 or other emergency services and start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The emergency operator can coach you on how to perform CPR.
Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms, medical history, lifestyle, and family medical history and do a physical exam. He or she may ask if you have been hit hard in the chest or been in an automobile accident. Several specialists may see you.
Your doctor will listen to your heart sounds with a stethoscope, take your pulse and evaluate your circulation, and evaluate your neurological status (nerve and brain function). As the symptoms of aortic dissection mimic many other conditions, you may need several tests.
If you have an aortic dissection, you may need:
The treatment of aortic dissection depends in part on where the dissection is located:
Initial emergency treatment
Treatment for aortic dissection should be started immediately following the diagnosis. The goal of initial emergency treatment is to relieve pain and to reduce the blood pressure on the dissection (reduction of the pulsatile load). This helps prevent additional bleeding and reduces the risk of a rupture.
Typically, you are put immediately in an intensive care unit (ICU) or taken to the operating room. Your doctor will continuously monitor and control your blood pressure, pulse, and heart activity.
Treating type A dissections
Typically, the first line of treatment for type A dissections (dissection of the aorta involving the ascending aorta) is surgery.
The goal of the operation is to prevent death due to bleeding and to reestablish blood flow into the extremities and inner organs (if branches of the aorta are involved in the dissection process).
In this open-heart procedure, your chest is opened and the surgeon removes the part of the aorta where the tear is found. The portion of the aorta removed can be replaced with a man-made graft. Another approach uses a similar graft that is placed inside the aorta. In this approach the ascending aorta is not replaced but internally reinforced.
The surgery cannot be done if you are already suffering from a severe complication in the process of dissection, such as a stroke. In this situation an operation would lead to severe bleeding in the brain.
Possible complications of aortic dissection and its surgery include:
It is sometimes not possible to use surgery in type A dissections. In this case, the same procedures and medicines outlined in the initial emergency treatment section are used.
Treating type B dissections
Type B dissections are usually treated with medicines. In rare cases, a procedure or surgery may be needed if:
Other Works Consulted
Braverman AC, et al. (2012). Diseases of the aorta. In RO Bonow et al., eds., Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1309–1337. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Current as ofSeptember 26, 2018
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineJeffrey J. Gilbertson, MD - Vascular Surgery
Current as of:
September 26, 2018
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Jeffrey J. Gilbertson, MD - Vascular Surgery
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2018 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.