An aneurysm is a balloon-like bulge in a blood vessel that can affect any large vessel in your body. An aneurysm happens when the pressure of blood passing through part of a weak blood vessel forces the vessel to bulge outward, forming what you might think of as a thin-skinned blister. Not all aneurysms are life threatening, but those found in the arteries in our bodies often need to be treated. If the bulging stretches the artery too far, this vessel may burst, causing a person to bleed to death.
Aneurysms can occur in blood vessels anywhere in the body. They usually form in the brain or in the aorta (the main artery carrying blood from the heart). In many cases, aneurysms are associated with other types of cardiovascular disease, especially high blood pressure and atherosclerosis. Traumatic injuries, infections, and congenital conditions can also lead to an aneurysm.
Treatment depends on the size and location of your aneurysm and your overall health. Aneurysms in the upper chest (ascending aorta) are usually operated on right away. Aneurysms in the lower chest or the area below your stomach (descending thoracic and abdominal portions of the aorta) may not be as life-threatening. Aneurysms in these locations are watched regularly. If they become about 5 cm (almost 2 inches) in diameter, continue to grow, or begin to cause symptoms, your doctor may want you to have surgery to stop the aneurysm from bursting.
Doctors also may prescribe medicine, especially medicine that lowers blood pressure (such as a beta-blocker), to relieve the stress on the arterial walls. Medicine to lower blood pressure is especially useful for patients where the risk of surgery may be greater than the risk of the aneurysm itself.
Cardiologists at the Texas Heart Institute have been using a nonsurgical technique to treat high-risk patients with aortic aneurysms. This technique is useful for patients who cannot have surgery because their overall health would make it too dangerous. The procedure uses a balloon-tipped catheter to insert a spring-like device called a stent at the site of the aneurysm. The balloon is inflated to open up the stent, and once the catheter and deflated balloon are removed from the artery, the stent acts as a barrier between the blood and the arterial wall. The blood flows through the stent, decreasing the pressure on the wall of the weakened artery. This decrease in pressure can prevent the aneurysm from bursting.