Diseases of the Thoracic Aorta
The aorta is the largest artery in the body. It extends from the heart, down through the chest (thoracic aorta) and into the abdomen (abdominal aorta). The thoracic aorta can be thought of as a big hose shaped like a candy cane that arises from the heart and carries oxygenated blood to the body.
Thoracic aortic diseases include:
- Aortic dissections
- Atherosclerotic disease
- Traumatic injury
A thoracic aortic aneurysm is a weak, bulging part of the aortic wall that can rupture (burst). Rupture of the aorta can lead to massive internal bleeding and death. An aortic dissection occurs when a tear separates the layers of the aortic wall. A dissection can weaken the aorta resulting in the development of an aneurysm and/or may cause artery blockages to the brain, legs, arms, kidney and other organs.
Thoracic aortic aneurysms and dissections represent life-threatening emergencies and require immediate medical attention. Thoracic aortic aneurysms affect approximately 15,000 people in the United States each year.
Anatomy of the Thoracic Aorta
To understand thoracic aortic disease, it is helpful to understand the parts of the thoracic aorta.
- Abdominal aorta: Located just beyond the thoracoabdominal aorta, just below the level of the diaphragm. The abdominal aorta supplies blood to the kidneys and the lower portion of the body.
- Aortic root: The first part of the thoracic aorta. Located just beyond the aortic valve, the aortic root is important because this is where the coronary arteries (responsible for supplying blood to the heart muscle) receive the blood to nourish the heart.
- Aortic valve: Located in the heart. This valve is responsible for directing blood flow out of the heart and into the thoracic aorta.
- Ascending thoracic aorta: Located just beyond the aortic root. The ascending thoracic aorta travels upwards towards the neck.
- Descending thoracic aorta: Located just beyond the thoracic aortic arch. The descending thoracic aorta turns down and travels towards to the feet.
- Thoracic aortic arch: Located just beyond the ascending thoracic aorta. The thoracic aortic arch turns left and forms an arch.
- Thoracoabdominal aorta: Located just beyond the descending thoracic aorta. The thoracoabdominal aorta begins at the level of the diaphragm (thin muscle that extends across the bottom of the rib cage and plays an important role in breathing). The diaphragm is the point at which the thoracic aorta ends and the abdominal aorta begins.
A variety of factors may contribute to development of thoracic aortic diseases including:
- Aortic valve disease
- Connective tissue disorder (Marfan’s syndrome)
- Family history
- High blood cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- History of aneurysms in other locations in the body
- Increasing age
- Male gender
- Trauma (Motor vehicle accident or fall)
Thoracic aortic aneurysms develop slowly and are typically without symptoms (asymptomatic). However, if symptoms are present, they may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Coughing, hoarseness
- Leg pain or numbness
- Severe back pain
- Shortness of breath
Diagnosis of thoracic aortic disease is made using the following tests:
The Thoracic Aortic Disease program manages all aspects of thoracic aortic disease from the level of the aortic valve through the ascending aorta, the aortic arch, the descending thoracic aorta and thoraco-abdominal aorta. Treatment is provided by both vascular and cardiac surgeons. Learn more about Thoracic Aortic Disease Treatment.
Ongoing clinical research trials at the Center for Vascular Disease are investigating new treatment options for thoracic aortic disease to ensure that our patients receive the most innovative care in the country. For more information regarding these clinical trials, visit the Clinical Trials Unit of Northwestern, send an e-mail or call 312-926-4000.
Contact Us Today
For more information regarding thoracic aortic disease and the treatments available, please contact the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at 866-662-8467. To schedule an appointment, please call 312-695-4965 or request a first-time appointment online.