What is abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA)?
The aorta is the largest artery in your body and it carries blood away from your heart. Your aorta runs through your chest and into abdomen. The abdominal aorta supplies blood to the lower part of the body. Just below the abdomen, the aorta divides into two branches that carry blood into each leg. When a weak area of the abdominal aorta expands or bulges, it is called an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA). The pressure from blood flowing through your abdominal aorta can cause a weakened part of the aorta to bulge, much like a balloon. A normal aorta is about 1 inch (or about 2 centimeters) in diameter. However, an AAA can stretch the aorta beyond its safety margin.
Aneurysms are a health risk because they can burst, or rupture. A ruptured aneurysm can cause severe internal bleeding, which can lead to shock or even death. Fortunately, when diagnosed early, AAA can be treated, or even cured, with highly effective and safe treatments.
What are the symptoms?
Although you may not feel any symptoms with AAA, if you develop symptoms, you may experience one or more of the following:
- A pulsing feeling in your abdomen, similar to a heartbeat
- Severe, sudden pain in your abdomen or lower back. If this is the case, your aneurysm may be about to burst
- On rare occasions, your feet may develop pain, discolouration, or sore because of material shed from the aneurysm which travel down into the arteries supplying the legs and feet
If your aneurysm bursts, you may suddenly feel intense weakness, dizziness, or pain, and you may eventually lose consciousness. This is a life-threatening situation and you should seek medical attention immediately.
What causes an abdominal aortic aneurysm?
Physicians and researchers are not quite sure what causes AAA. The leading thought is that the aneurysm may be caused by inflammation in the aorta, which may cause its wall to break down.
Factors that can increase your risk of AAA include:
- being a man older than 60 years
- having an immediate relative, such as a mother or brother, who has had AAA
- having high blood pressure
Your risk of developing AAA increases as you age. AAA is more common in men than in women.
What tests will I need?
The diagnosis is usually made using an ultrasound scan performed in the vascular laboratory or the XRay department. If the decision has been made that you should be assessed for suitability for an operation you will be admitted to hospital. You will admitted by a doctor who will take your history and examine you - during your admission, this process may be repeated many times, this is for your safety. Routine blood tests will be taken. Your regular medication may need to be changed. We usually administer daily heparin injections to prevent leg clots (DVT).
You will usually have an ultrasound scan and often a CT scan (specialised XRay) .
Your heart will be assessed using an ECG and you may require specialised tests such as an echocardiograph (a special ultrasound scan), a stress test (walking on a treadmill) or a coronary angiogram.
Your breathing will be assessed using a chest XRay, spirometry and/or special blood tests.
Your kidney function will be assessed using special blood tests.
When your tests have been completed. one of the surgical team will discuss your options with you and discuss the surgical procedure. You will have an opportunity to ask any questions at this time and it is useful if you can arrange to have a family member present or for them to meet the surgical team at another time. You will seen and assessed by an anesthetist who will explain your anaesthetic to you
Open Surgical aneurysm repair
You must fast (nothing to eat or drink) from midnight on the night before your operation.
On the morning of surgery, we will confirm that a bed is available in the intensive care unit and you will be brought to the operating theatre.
The procedure is performed under general anaesthetic but you may also have an epidural anaesthetic which helps with pain relief after surgery.
When you have been anaesthetised, your surgeon will make an incision in your abdomen and replace the weakened part of your aorta with a tube-like replacement called an aortic graft. This graft is made of strong man-made material, such as plastic, in the size and shape of the healthy aorta. The strong tube takes the place of the weakened section in your aorta and allows your blood to pass easily through it.
After the operation you will go to the intensive care unit for one to two days. there will be tubes in your arm veins and arteries and a tube in your nose and bladder but these will be removed over the next few days as you recover.
You will sit out on a chair on the first day after your operation and slowly build up your mobility over the next few days. A physiotherapist will help you keep your chest clear and ensure that you are coughing effectively.
Most people are ready for discharge in 7 - 10 days but you might prefer to go to a nursing home for a further two weeks convalescence. We can help you arrange this.
Poor appetite, lack of energy and disturbed sleep are common and will resolve over weeks or months. You may begin walking straight away but heavier activity should be introduced gradually after 4 to 6 weeks. You will be back to normal by three months.
While every effort is made to avoid problems, serious compliactions occur in up to 15% of people having aneurysm surgery. These include:
- breathing problems (pneumonia)
- heart problems (heart attack or irregular heartbeat)
- kidney problems (kidney failure requiring dialysis).
If these problems occur, they may be life-threatening and the risk of death following aneurysm repair is between 5 and 10%. Serious bleeding during or after surgery, wounds problems or deep venous clots are uncommon but do occur.