Abdominal aortic aneurysm

Abdominal aortic aneurysms (AAA) are focal dilatations of the abdominal aorta that are 50% greater than the proximal normal segment or >3 cm in maximum diameter.

The prevalence of AAAs increases with age. Males are much more commonly affected than females, with a ratio of 4:1. They are the tenth most common cause of death in the Western world. Approximately 10% of individuals older than 65 have an AAA.

Most AAAs are asymptomatic unless they leak or rupture, and are therefore diagnosed incidentally when the abdomen is imaged for other indications. Unruptured aneurysms may uncommonly cause abdominal or back pain, or manifest as a pulsatile mass if large.

The most common and feared complication is that of abdominal aortic rupture which presents with severe abdominal or back pain, hypotension and shock. The mortality rate from a ruptured AAA is high (59-83% of patients die before they make it to a hospital or undergo surgery). The operative mortality rate for those who make it to surgery tends to be around 40%. Elective surgery mortality is much lower (4-6%). Ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysms are discussed in more detail separately. 

Other reported complications include:

  • detection of AAA
  • monitoring of growth rate
  • preoperative planning
  • postoperative follow-up

An aneurysm may be visible as an area of curvilinear calcification in the paravertebral region on either abdominal or lumbar spine radiographs performed for alternative indications. Radiographs are not optimal for detection or follow-up.

Ultrasound assessment is simple, safe and inexpensive. It has a reported sensitivity of 95% and specificity close to 100%. It is usually the preferred choice for the monitoring of small aneurysms. The measurement error for ultrasound evaluation of AAA is 4 mm 12; keep in mind that an aneurysm never decreases in size.

CT angiography (CTA) is considered the imaging gold standard but exposes the patients to high radiation doses. It is excellent for pre-operative planning as it accurately delineates the size and shape of the AAA and its relationship to branch arteries and the aortic bifurcation. Oblique reformations enable accurate measurements in non-orthogonal planes. CTA is superior to ultrasound in detecting and measuring common iliac artery aneurysms.

Signs of frank rupture include:

Signs of impending rupture or contained leakage:

An increasing diameter of the aneurysmal sac of 5 mm over a 6-month interval or a diameter of 7 cm are also considered to be at high risk for rupture and warrant urgent repair.

Offers lack of ionising radiation, but is more costly, less widely available, and the examination is substantially lengthier.

Digital subtraction angiography (DSA) does not show the true aneurysm size if there is a mural thrombus but is superb at delineating branch vessels. Barring certain contraindications, endovascular repair of AAA is usually the first treatment choice. See Treatment and prognosis below.

When reporting a study with an AAA, a number of features and relevant negatives should be included in the radiology report. This is particularly true if this is a new or undocumented finding:

Also see: reporting tips for aortic aneurysms

The natural history of abdominal aortic aneurysms is that of slow expansion, with possible eventual rupture having devastating consequences.

The risk of rupture is proportional to the size of the aneurysm and the rate of growth. Differing rates of rupture for a given aneurysm size have been reported in the literature, but the general consensus is that aneurysms greater than 5.0 cm in diameter in women and 5.5 cm in men carry a significantly increased risk of rupture and should be treated. Additional indications for repair 17:

  • an increase in diameter of 5 mm in 6 months
  • a symptomatic aneurysm

In patients with a connective tissue disorder (e.g. Marfan syndrome), especially those with a bicuspid aortic valve, surgical treatment may be considered even with a diameter smaller than 5.0 cm.

Follow-up intervals for imaging an enlarged infrarenal abdominal aorta from initial detection 11:

  • <2.5 cm: follow up not needed
  • 2.5-2.9 cm: 5 year interval
  • 3.0-3.4 cm: 3 year interval
  • 3.5-3.9 cm: 2 year interval
  • 4.0-4.4 cm: 1-year interval
  • 4.5-4.9 cm: 6-month interval
  • 5.0-5.5 cm: 3-6 month interval
  • >5.5 cm: treatment

Management options include:

  • follow-up; see above
  • endovascular aneurysm repair (EVAR)
    • if the anatomy permits EVAR, it is preferred to open repair, as aneurysm-related mortality has been shown to be much lower with EVAR
  • open surgical repair
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Article information

rID: 826
System: Vascular
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • AAA
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA)
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysms
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysmal dilatation
  • AAA's

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