Bringing awareness to aneurysms in the chest

Most often, bulges in the aorta near the heart are found by accident. Should you be screened for this rare yet dangerous condition?

aneurysms chest aorta
Image: Nerthuz /Thinkstock

The aorta, the body's largest blood vessel, arises from the heart's left pumping chamber, then curves up and over the heart in a gentle arc. In some people, a weak spot in the aorta's wall causes the vessel to bulge outward like a worn-out bicycle tire. Called a thoracic aneurysm, this stealthy condition develops slowly and silently, rarely causing symptoms. And while some thoracic aneurysms are relatively harmless, others cause catastrophic problems. An estimated one in 10,000 people has a thoracic aneurysm, although the exact prevalence is unknown.

"Most thoracic aneurysms are discovered on an imaging test done for some other reason," explains Dr. Eric Isselbacher, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Thoracic Aortic Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. For example, an aneurysm might be visible on an echocardiogram (heart ultrasound) done during testing for an irregular heartbeat. Because the condition is so uncommon, testing everyone for a thoracic aneurysm doesn't make sense. But certain people face a higher risk than others (see "Who needs to be checked?").

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