Aortic dissection occurs when the layers of the aorta separate. The aorta is the main artery leading from the heart. Arterial walls have 3 layers. A tear in an inner layer can admit blood under pressure that works its way between layers, causing the layers to dissect apart or separate. This process can squeeze off the main channel so that blood cannot get through the main aorta or any of its branches.
This is a life-threatening event since it can cause stroke, sudden cardiac arrest, or death due to impaired blood flow to a number of vital organs. The enlarging mass of misdirected blood can also compromise nearby structures, such as the airways, lungs, or heart. It may also rupture with catastrophic bleeding.
Heart and Main Vessels
Aortic dissection is usually caused by elevated high blood pressure or a diseased aorta. This usually is the result of atherosclerosis.
Factors that may increase your chance of aortic dissection include:
Aortic dissection may cause:
- Sudden, ripping pain in the chest and or back
- Shortness of breath
- Sudden weakness
Aortic dissection is usually a sudden, catastrophic event that results in a medical emergency. At the hospital, the doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Imaging tests evaluate the aorta and surrounding structures. These may include:
Treatment depends on where in the aorta the dissection occurs. Once stabilized, you will be further evaluated for the type of treatment needed. One type of aortic dissection requires immediate major surgery. Another type can often be managed without surgery (if no blood vessels are obstructed).
Treatment options may include:
The chest is opened, and the aorta is repaired. A stent may be used to replace the damaged segment of aorta.
To help reduce your chance of aortic dissection:
- Keep high blood pressure and cholesterol under control through diet and/or medications
- Talk to your doctor about any risk factors you may have for aortic dissection
American Heart Association
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Aortic dissection. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/cardiovascular_disorders/diseases_of_the_aorta_and_its_branches/aortic_dissection.html. Updated May 2014. Accessed August 20, 2014.
Mukherjee D, Eagle KA. Aortic dissection–an update. Curr Probl Cardiol. 2005 Jun;30(6):287-325.
Thoracic aortic aneurysm. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T908572/Thoracic-aortic-aneurysm. Updated May 26, 2016. Accessed September 26, 2016.
Thoracic aortic dissection. EBSCO Plus DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T113709/Thoracic-aortic-dissection. Updated August 24, 2016. Accessed September 26, 2016.
8/20/2014 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T908572/Thoracic-aortic-aneurysm: Jacobs JE, Latson LA, et al. American College of Radiology (ACR) Appropriateness Criteria for acute chest pain: suggested aortic dissection. Available at: http://www.acr.org/~/media/ACR/Documents/AppCriteria/Diagnostic/AcuteChestPainSuspectedAorticDissection.pdf. Updated 2014. Accessed August 20, 2014.
Last reviewed December 2015 by Michael J. Fucci, DO
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.