Every few months, there is a tragic story in the news about someone suddenly dying from an aneurysm. While the term “aneurysm” is common, many people do not know its true definition. An aneurysm is when there is an enlargement of an artery caused by weakened artery walls causing it to “balloon out.” Media stories often reflect brain aneurysms, but aneurysms also can happen in the heart.

In the heart, aneurysms occur in the aorta – the body’s main artery. The aorta carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Aneurysms can happen in any part of the aorta, but they are most common in the abdominal (stomach) or thoracic (chest) regions of the body. The artery is overstretched and weak, which means it can burst. If it bursts, serious bleeding or death can occur.

Generally, the wall of the aorta is elastic. It adapts to blood flow, which means it can stretch and shrink. High blood pressure, hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), and wear and tear from aging can weaken the aorta, causing the bulge.

Aneurysms can develop slowly over a period of years and often have no symptoms. If an aneurysm grows quickly or ruptures, a person may experience pain, dizziness, nausea, rapid heart rate, shock and low blood pressure. Angiograms, computerized tomography (CT) scans and ultrasound tests are used to diagnose an aneurysm.

Treatment of an aneurysm depends on the size and how fast it is growing. Large aneurysms require surgery. During surgery, a vascular surgeon will repair the blood vessel through traditional surgery or minimally invasive procedures. The wall of the artery is reinforced with a stent. If the aneurysm has “ballooned out,” a coiling procedure may be used to close off the area, which prevents more tearing of the already weakened wall.

To lower a person’s risk of having an aneurysm, they can take the following steps to promote healthy blood vessels:

  • Controlling high blood pressure
  • Following a healthy diet
  • Exercising
  • Managing stress
  • Quitting smoking

Known as a leader in the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation and research of cardiovascular disease, the cardiac care team at the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Medical Center offers the full spectrum of endovascular care, including minimally invasive techniques to treat aortic aneurysms. The care team uses a specially designed stent that travels through an artery to the problem area and is then placed to improve blood flow.