What is an AAA and who is at risk?
The aorta is the main blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the body. An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is when the section of that large vessel which passes through your abdomen swells.
The swelling occurs when the vessel walls weaken and swells, forming an aneurysm. This walls of an aneurysm are much weaker and can tear or burst, potentially causing you to very quickly lose all of your blood into your abdomen.
Some people are genetically more likely to have weakening in their blood vessels or of the aorta in particular and there isn’t a way to change this. Unmodifiable risk factors for AAA include age over 65, male gender, and family history.
Other people have modifiable risk factors, things which can be managed or minimized with lifestyle changes or medical management. This includes medical conditions that make an aneurysm more likely (like high blood pressure, and others have made lifestyle choices that increase their risk (like smoking cigarettes).
How do I know if I have one?
AAA are asymptomatic, meaning people can’t usually feel or tell they have one. Most of the time doctors find them by chance on CT scans of the abdomen looking for other problems like kidney stones, infections or before a surgery. They are also caught on screening exams.
Most doctors follow the recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force to screen all men who have ever smoked cigarettes with a onetime abdominal ultra sound between 65 and 75 years old. An ultra sound is a way to see the body’s soft tissues like organs, muscles, and blood vessels using sound waves without radiation.
Naval Health Clinic Lemoore’s radiology department is able to do this screening test with an order from your physician.
What if my screening test comes back positive?
If you are sent for an AAA ultrasound and it comes back positive, that means your aorta has ballooned to an abnormal level. Your provider may start you on a medication to lower your blood pressure or relax the walls of your blood vessels.
She may have you repeat the ultrasound in a few months to years to track if the aneurysm grows. And if it grows quickly or is large enough, she may also refer you to a vascular surgeon to discuss repair options you have if necessary.
Bottom line, be sure to be honest with your provider when they ask you screening questions about your family history and lifestyle. And if you are at risk for an AAA, follow the screening recommendations from your physician. In this case, one ultrasound can really be the difference between life and death.
Lt. Gillian Wackowski, D.O., is a Naval Hospital Lemoore Medical Homeport physician. She is a Family Medicine Doctor on Medical Homeport Gold Team and sees patients of all ages.