An aneurysm is a weak spot in the wall of a blood vessel that may cause an abnormal bulge. The bulge can rupture and cause internal bleeding. Although it can occur in any blood vessel, aneurysms are most common in the brain, the aorta, the legs, and spleen. More than 13,000 deaths occur each year in the United States from ruptured aneurysms.
Although the exact cause of an aneurysm is unclear, certain factors do contribute to the condition. For example, damaged tissue in the arteries certainly plays a role. The arteries can be harmed by blockages, such as fatty deposits from high-fat foods. The deposits can trigger the heart to pump harder than necessary to push blood past the fatty buildup. This stress can damage the arteries from too much pressure.
A type of cholesterol buildup in your arteries called atherosclerotic disease also may lead to an aneurysm. This condition produces plaque, a hard substance, that damages the arteries and prevents blood from flowing freely.
High blood pressure is another factor that may influence the formation of an aneurysm. The force of your blood as it travels through your blood vessels is measured by how much pressure it places on your artery walls. As the pressure increases above a normal rate, it may enlarge or weaken blood vessels. Blood pressure for an adult is considered normal at 120/80 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury) or below. A significantly higher blood pressure increases the risk for heart, blood vessel, and circulation problems. However, higher than normal blood pressure does not necessarily put you at risk for an aneurysm.
An aneurysm may occur anywhere in your body, but the most common types of aneurysms are:
The aorta is the largest blood vessel in the body. It begins at the left ventricle of the heart and travels down the abdomen where it splits off into both legs. The aorta is a common site for arterial aneurysms.
Chest: Aneurysms in the chest cavity near the heart are called thoracic aortic aneurysms.
Abdomen: Abdominal aortic aneurysms are the most common type. In rare cases, both the chest and abdomen can be affected by arterial damage.
Aneurysms in the brain can be any size, and often form in the blood vessels that lie deep within the brain. They also may not present any symptoms or signs. You may not even know you have an aneurysm. Aneurysms of this type may cause bleeding in as many as 3 percent of people, according to the UCSF Center for Cerebrovascular Research. (UCSF)
You can also experience aneurysms in the artery located behind the knees, in the spleen, or the intestines.
The symptoms of an aneurysm vary with its type and location. It is important to know that aneurysms that occur in the body or brain generally do not present signs or symptoms until they rupture. However, those that occur near the surface of the body may show signs of swelling and pain. A large mass also may develop. The symptoms of ruptured aneurysms (anywhere in the body) include:
- increased heart rate
- feeling dizzy or lightheaded
Serious complications from aneurysms can cause death if not treated with emergency care.
The type of aneurysm that can affect you depends on specific risk factors. For example, Males are more likely to experience aneurysms than females. Also those older than 60 are at a higher risk. Other factors include:
- diet high in fats and cholesterol
- family history of heart conditions, including heart disease and heart attack
- pregnancy (pregnant women may be susceptible to aneurysms of the spleen)
The diagnostic tools used to find arterial damage often depend on the location of the problem. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist like a cardiothoracic or vascular surgeon.
Computerized tomography (CT) scans and ultrasound methods are common tools used to diagnose or find blood vessel irregularities. CT scans use X-rays to see into your body, showing the condition of the blood vessels and any blockages, bulges, and weak spots that may be found inside them.
Treatment typically depends on the location and type of aneurysm. For example, a weak area of a vessel (generally the aorta) in your chest and abdomen may require a type of surgery called an endovascular stent graft. This minimally invasive procedure may be chosen over traditional open-chest surgery because it repairs and reinforces damaged blood vessels as well as reduces the chance of infection, scarring, and other problems.
Other treatments include medications that treat high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Certain types of beta-blockers may also be prescribed to lower blood pressure to keep the aneurysm from rupturing.
To help prevent aneurysms from forming, eat a healthy diet containing plenty of fruits, whole grains, and vegetables. Choose protein (meat and poultry) low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Eat and drink low-fat dairy products.
Get plenty of regular exercise—specifically cardiovascular—to encourage healthy blood circulation and flow through the heart, arteries, and other blood vessels.
See your physician for annual checkups. If you smoke tobacco products, quit.