Skip to main content

What is abdominal aortic aneurysm?

An abdominal aortic aneurysm, also called AAA or triple A, is a bulging, weakened area in the wall of the abdominal aorta (the largest artery in the body) resulting in an abnormal widening or ballooning greater than 50 percent of the vessel's normal diameter (width).

The aorta extends upward from the top of the left ventricle of the heart in the chest area (ascending thoracic aorta), then curves like a candy cane (aortic arch) downward through the chest area (descending thoracic aorta) into the abdomen (abdominal aorta). The aorta delivers oxygenated blood pumped from the heart to the rest of the body.

The most common location of arterial aneurysm formation is the abdominal aorta, specifically, the segment of the abdominal aorta below the kidneys. An abdominal aneurysm located below the kidneys is called an infrarenal aneurysm. An aneurysm can be characterized by its location, shape and cause.

Symptoms

Abdominal aortic aneurysms may be asymptomatic (without symptoms) or symptomatic (with symptoms).

About three of every four abdominal aortic aneurysms are asymptomatic. An aneurysm may also be discovered by X-ray, computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that is being done for other conditions. Since abdominal aneurysm may be present without symptoms, it's referred to as the "silent killer" because it may rupture before being diagnosed.

Pain is the most common symptom of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. The pain associated with an abdominal aortic aneurysm may be located in the abdomen, chest, lower back or groin area. The pain may be severe or dull. The occurrence of pain is often associated with the imminent (about to happen) rupture of the aneurysm.

Acute, sudden onset of severe pain in the back and/or abdomen may represent rupture and is a life-threatening medical emergency.

Abdominal aortic aneurysms may also cause a pulsing sensation, similar to a heartbeat, in the abdomen.

The symptoms of an abdominal aortic aneurysm may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for more information.

Diagnosis

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for an aneurysm may include any, or a combination, of the following:

  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan - This diagnostic imaging procedure uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - This is a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radio frequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
  • Ultrasound - An ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves and a computer to create images of blood vessels, tissues and organs. Ultrasounds are used to view internal organs as they function, and to assess blood flow through various vessels.
  • Arteriogram (angiogram) - This is an X-ray image of the blood vessels used to evaluate various conditions, such as aneurysm, stenosis (narrowing of the blood vessel) or blockages. A dye (contrast) will be injected through a thin flexible tube placed in an artery. This dye makes the blood vessels visible on an X-ray.

See our approach to exceptional cardiac care