An aortic aneurysm occurs when a weak aortic wall stretches, causing it to bulge. An aortic dissection occurs when there’s a tear in the aortic wall, which can be fatal if not treated immediately.

The symptoms of an aortic dissection and an aortic aneurysm can resemble each other. Both conditions are associated with sudden chest or upper back pain that spreads, shortness of breath, and a weak pulse.

Despite their similar symptoms, though, these conditions are not the same.

This article looks at the main differences between aortic dissections and aortic aneurysms, including causes, risk factors, and symptoms.

The aorta is a large artery connected to the heart. It distributes oxygen-rich blood throughout the body.

When the heart pumps, blood is pushed through the aortic valve and upward into the aorta. The aorta curves around and down toward the abdomen, branching to other large arteries that deliver blood to the organs and muscles.

Two main issues can affect the aorta:

  1. An aortic aneurysm occurs when a weak area in the wall of the aorta forms a bulge, causing the aorta wall to balloon out. This makes it more prone to tearing. An aneurysm can happen anywhere along the aorta.
  2. An aortic dissection happens when there is a tear in the innermost wall of the aorta and blood pushes between the inner and outer walls, separating them. Although it’s fairly uncommon, it’s a life threatening emergency.

What is an aortic aneurysm?

An aneurysm can form in any blood vessel in the body. In an aortic aneurysm, a weak spot in the aorta stretches and bulges with blood, much like a balloon.

It might stay like that for some time without causing symptoms. In fact, most aneurysms only cause symptoms when they rupture or dissect, which can be fatal.

an illustration that shows a normal aorta compared with an aorta that has an aneurysmShare on Pinterest
Medical Illustration by Bailey Mariner

When an aneurysm forms in the part of the aorta that passes through your chest, it’s called a thoracic aortic aneurysm. Symptoms of a thoracic aortic aneurysm that has not ruptured include:

  • chest or upper back pain
  • a cough, hoarse voice, or difficulty swallowing
  • shortness of breath

When it forms in part of the aorta below your chest area, it’s called an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Symptoms of an abdominal aneurysm that has not ruptured include:

  • chest pain
  • pain in the lower half of the body, including the abdomen, lower back, groin, or legs
  • a pulsating sensation in the abdomen

Older males have an increased risk of experiencing an aortic aneurysm. Other risk factors include:

What is an aortic dissection?

An aortic dissection develops from a tear in the innermost layer of the aortic wall, known as the intima. Blood starts to flow through the tear, causing it to separate from the aortic wall’s middle layer, called the media.

Aortic dissections can form anywhere along the length of the aorta, but they’re more likely to occur in the part of the aorta that crosses the chest.

An aortic dissection can reduce blood flow to major organs, causing severe symptoms. An aortic dissection is a life threatening medical emergency.

People describe the pain caused by an aortic dissection as sudden and intense, including a tearing sensation that radiates toward the neck or back. Other symptoms include:

  • abdominal pain
  • difficulty breathing
  • loss of consciousness
  • low pulse
  • pain in one leg
  • stroke-like symptoms, including
    • confusion
    • slurred speech
    • vision problems
    • weakness or paralysis on one side of the body
    • trouble walking

Like aortic aneurysms, aortic dissections can be caused by weakened aortic walls. As a result, the risk factors for both conditions are similar.

Yes, an aortic aneurysm increases your risk of an aortic dissection.

If you have an aneurysm, it means the walls of your aorta are already weakened and stretched. This makes the aorta more vulnerable to a tear that could lead to an aortic dissection.

Sometimes an aortic dissection is the first sign of an asymptomatic aortic aneurysm.

It’s not possible to totally prevent either condition. However, you can lower your risk by taking the following steps:

  • Get checked: If you have risk factors for an aortic aneurysm, ask your doctor whether you should get screened. If an aortic aneurysm is found, you might need regular monitoring or surgery to prevent a rupture.
  • Report symptoms: Let your doctor or healthcare professional know about symptoms such as chest pain or hoarseness, even if the symptoms are mild. It may be possible to receive a diagnosis of an aortic aneurysm before it causes severe symptoms.
  • Quit smoking, if applicable: Many people who experience an aortic aneurysm or dissection are current or former smokers. Your doctor can provide more information about smoking cessation programs.
  • Monitor your blood pressure: High blood pressure is a major risk factor for an aneurysm. Take any blood pressure medication as prescribed and use an at-home monitoring device to make sure your blood pressure stays in the desired range.
  • Eat a balanced diet and get regular exercise: Eating a low salt, heart-healthy diet including lots of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables may help reduce your risk of high cholesterol. Regular physical activity is important, too.

Aortic aneurysms and dissections are two separate but related conditions. An aortic aneurysm occurs when a weak aortic wall stretches, causing it to bulge with blood.

Many aortic aneurysms don’t cause symptoms right away. Over time, though, an aortic aneurysm can increase your risk of an aortic dissection.

An aortic dissection occurs when there is a tear in the aortic wall and blood gets between the inner and outer layers of the aorta, causing them to separate. It can be fatal and requires immediate medical attention.