Aortic tears

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

An aortic tear or aortic dissection is a serious condition, in which a tear in the artery wall occurs. When the tear extends further along the wall of the aorta, blood can enter in between the layers of the aortic wall (dissection). This can lead to an aortic rupture or decreased blood flow to organs.

Symptoms associated with an aortic tear include:

  • Sharp stabbing pain

  • Pain in the chest and shoulder blade

  • Pain that goes between the legs and arms

There are some factors which put individuals at a higher risk of developing an aortic tear. These factors and conditions can include:

  • Bicuspid aortic valve

  • Narrowing of the aorta

  • Connective tissue disorders and rare genetic disorders

  • Pregnancy

  • Swelling of the blood vessels

  • Heart surgery

Where do aortic tears occur?

The aorta exits the heart carrying oxygenated blood, it travels up through the chest towards the head (the ascending aorta) and then arches, and travels down through the chest and into the abdomen (the descending aorta). Usually an aortic tear is the result of a tear or damage to the inner wall of the aorta. Most often this occurs in the chest part of the artery, but can happen in the abdominal aorta.

When the aorta tears, it creates 2 channels, one in which blood continues to travel and another where blood stays still.

If the channel with non-traveling blood swells, it can press on other branches of the aorta. This can narrow the other branches and reduce the ability for blood flow through them.

An aortic tear may also cause abnormal widening or ballooning of the aorta (this is called an aortic aneurysm).

If the aortic tear prevents sufficient blood flow to other areas of the body other symptoms can result:

  • Anxiety and a feeling of doom

  • Fainting or dizziness

  • Clammy skin

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Pale skin

  • Rapid, weak pulse

  • Shortness of breath and trouble breathing when lying flat

The cause of an aortic tear is unknown. It can occur at any age, but is most commonly seen in men aged between 40-70 years old. Around 2 in 10,000 people will be affected by this condition. Here are some conditions that are thought to be linked with an aortic tear:

  • Age

  • High blood pressure

  • Trauma to the chest

An aortic tear is a life-threatening condition so must be treated immediately. Tears in the descending aorta may be able to be treated with medication but most require surgery. The surgery for this condition can be performed in two different ways; standard open heart surgery, which involves making an opening in the chest or via an endoscopic aortic repair, which is done through small incisions using a camera and special equipment.

This article is intended to inform and give insight but not treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a doctor. Always seek medical advice with any questions regarding a medical condition.