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Aortopathy is a disorder of the aorta, the largest artery in the body.

The aorta carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. When a problem occurs, the results can be serious.

UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute diagnoses aortopathy and uses minimally invasive techniques to treat it.

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What is Aortopathy?

The aorta, the body's main artery, supplies oxygenated blood to the whole body. It runs from the chest down through the stomach, where it splits off into smaller blood vessels.

Aortopathy is any disease that affects the aorta.

Conditions such as thoracic aortic enlargement (aneurysm in the chest) and acute aortic dissection (a tear in the aorta) can be life-threatening.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aortic aneurysm causes nearly 10,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.

Types of aortopathy

  • Aortic aneurysm: a balloon-like bulge on the wall of the aorta that can rupture. The aneurysm can occur in the chest (thoracic) or the stomach (abdominal).
  • Acute aortic dissection: a tear in the aorta, caused when blood coming from the heart gets trapped between layers of the aorta.
  • Bicuspid aortic valve: a healthy aortic valve has three flaps. A bicuspid aorta only has two flaps, causing blood to flow backward into the heart.
  • Connective tissue disorders, such as Marfan syndrome. A rare genetic disease that affects connective tissue throughout the body, making it easier for the aorta to tear.

Causes of aortopathy

Disorders of the aorta may be genetic or caused by a person's lifestyle.

About 75 percent of those with abdominal aortic aneurysms have a history of smoking.

But, any condition that causes the aorta's walls to weaken can lead to a thoracic aortic enlargement or acute aortic dissection. Injuries, wounds, and infections can all be a cause.

Aortopathy risk factors

  • Being male: two-thirds of those with diseases of the aorta are men.
  • High blood pressure: increased force of blood can weaken arterial walls
  • Being older than 65
  • Genetic conditions, such as Marfan syndrome, that limit the body's ability to make healthy connective tissue
  • Atherosclerosis: a build-up of plaque caused by high cholesterol can inflame blood vessels.
  • Trauma: car accidents and some diseases can make blood vessels inflamed.
  • Smoking: smokers are three to five times more likely than non-smokers to develop an aortic aneurysm, according to the American Heart Association.
  • Family history of aneurysm

How to prevent aortopathy

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control
  • Get routine check-ups and heart health screenings

Why choose UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute for aortopathy care?

Because of our:

  • Advanced treatments for diseases of the aorta
  • Testing and treatment at one convenient location
  • Groundbreaking heart and vascular research and clinical trials
  • Technology for sharing of medical records and images
  • Genetic testing and prevention plans for those with family history

UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute also offers community programs and events:

  • Heart screenings
  • A free monthly heart care clinic
  • Heart health education

Aortopathy Symptoms and Diagnosis

The following symptoms are signs of a potentially life-threatening aortic condition:

  • Chest pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Fainting
  • Trouble breathing
  • Sudden weakness on one side
  • Clammy skin
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shock

If you have any of the above, seek medical attention right away.

Diagnosing aortopathy

Doctors urge men — between 65 and 75 who have ever smoked — get an ultrasound, even if they don't have symptoms. An ultrasound screening may reveal an existing aortic aneurysm before it bursts and becomes a medical emergency.

Your doctor may also order a CT scan or an MRI if you have a family history of aneurysm.

Routine check-ups are vital for overall heart health.

Report any unusual symptoms (shortness of breath, nausea, irregular heartbeat) to your doctor right away.

Aortopathy Treatment

UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute offers treatment for aortopathy, including:

  • Lifestyle changes
  • Medicine
  • Surgery

Lifestyle changes

The following lifestyle changes can reduce the likelihood of problems with your aorta (and other heart-related diseases):

  • Quit smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Keep cholesterol levels in the normal range
  • Exercise regularly

Blood pressure medicine

Drugs can lower high blood pressure and reduce the risk of the aorta rupturing.

Surgery to treat aortopathy

Surgeons at the UPMC Center for Thoracic Aortic Disease are experts in minimally invasive surgery to repair or replace the damaged aorta.

Sometimes placing a stent in the artery is an option.

Compared to traditional surgery, these less invasive techniques to treat aortic diseases offer the following benefits:

  • Smaller incisions
  • Fewer complications
  • Less post-op pain
  • Faster healing
  • Shorter hospital stay