Thoracic aortic aneurysms are relatively uncommon compared to abdominal aortic aneurysms. There is a wide range of causes, and the ascending aorta is most commonly affected. CTA and MRA are the modalities of choice to image this condition.
The term aneurysm is used when the axial diameter of the thoracic aorta is > 5 cm and when it measures 4-5 cm the term dilatation is used 9.
Most commonly occur in 50 to 60-year-old age group and incidence is estimated at ~7.5 per 100,000 patient years 8. There is a male predominance (M:F=3:1).
Thoracic aneurysms are often identified incidentally on imaging of the chest. A symptomatic presentation may be due to mass effect on airway or oesophagus. Alternatively, they may present due to a complication, including rupture, aorto-bronchial or aorto-oesophageal fistulae.
Pseudoaneurysms of the thoracic aorta are usually the result of significant thoracic trauma, both penetrating and blunt, and carry a very high mortality, with 80-90% of patients dying before reaching hospital 4.
Aneurysmal dilatation can affect any part of the thoracic aorta. Relative frequencies are (with some involving more than one segment) 7:
- aortic root/ascending aorta: 60%
- aortic arch: 10%
- descending aorta: 40%
- thoracoabdominal segment: 10%
Thoracic aortic aneurysms can be divided pathologically according to their relationship to the aortic wall 1:
- true aneurysm
- post surgery
- mycotic aneurysms
- intracranial cerebral aneurysms (~10% prevalence) 11
The location and shape of thoracic aortic aneurysms are variable. An aortic aneurysm, as aneurysms elsewhere, can be described as saccular or fusiform. In the case of fusiform dilatation, the term aneurysm should be applied when the diameter is >4 cm 1.
The thoracic aorta can usually be seen on both frontal and lateral chest radiographs, and aneurysms are often obvious. However, it is difficult to assess size accurately (due to magnification effects and often poor visualisation on the side of the artery).
Additionally, mediastinal masses may mimic aortic aneurysms.
Unlike abdominal aneurysms that can usually be readily assessed and monitored with ultrasound, thoracic aortic aneurysms are encased in bone and air making transthoracic ultrasound of no use.
Transoesophageal echocardiography can visualise much of the descending aorta, but due to its invasive nature is not routinely used.
CTA is the work-horse of aneurysm assessment able to rapidly image the relevant vascular territory with high resolution. It can visualise both the sac and the lumen and detect potential complications.
Typically aneurysms appear as dilatations of the lumen. The walls may be thin or thickened by the presence of a mural thrombus (circumferential or more frequently eccentric).
Calcified atherosclerotic disease is often identified not only in the wall of an aneurysm but adjacent arteries.
If rupture or leak has occurred haematoma/fluid may be seen adjacent to the aorta, in the left pleural cavity or the pericardium 1.
See main article: reporting tips for aortic aneurysms.
MRI has the advantage of not requiring ionising radiation or large volumes of iodinated contrast 2. This is particularly advantageous in young patients with connective tissue disorders. However, there are limitations in patients with pacemakers, and those with reduced renal function (see nephrogenic systemic fibrosis)
Acquisitions capable of being reformatted in three dimensions are essential to allow for accurate luminal measurement 2.
Digital subtraction angiography (DSA)
Although angiography has long been considered the gold standard for vascular imaging, it has largely been superseded by CTA and MRA, which can obtain 3D volumetric data, and able to assess the extraluminal soft tissues.
Angiography is however used during endovascular repair.
Treatment and prognosis
Mild to moderate aneurysmal dilatation can usually be treated conservatively and monitored. When the diameter reaches 5-6 cm intervention is usually considered as the risk of rupture is significantly elevated 1. Treatment options include:
In general, when possible, endovascular repair is the treatment of choice, with reduced morbidity and mortality 2.
The majority of patients with thoracic aortic aneurysms either die of a direct complication of the aneurysm (rupture most frequently) or other cardiovascular complications 3. The main predictors of rupture are the size and speed of growth 3. The average growth of a thoracic aneurysm appears to be lower than that of abdominal aneurysms, typically in the order of 1-2 mm/year and correlates with a better prognosis for thoracic aneurysms when controlled for size 3.
- aortic dissection
- penetrating atherosclerotic ulcer
- intramural aortic haematoma
- Kommerell diverticulum
- aortic spindle: circumferential bulge at the proximal descending thoracic aorta just beyond the aortic isthmus (normal anatomical variant)
- mediastinal mass (on chest x-ray)
- 1. Collins J, Stern EJ. Chest radiology, the essentials. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. (2007) ISBN:0781763142. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 2. Atar E, Belenky A, Hadad M et-al. MR angiography for abdominal and thoracic aortic aneurysms: assessment before endovascular repair in patients with impaired renal function. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2006;186 (2): 386-93. doi:10.2214/AJR.04.0449 - Pubmed citation
- 3. Masuda Y, Takanashi K, Takasu J et-al. Expansion rate of thoracic aortic aneurysms and influencing factors. Chest. 1992;102 (2): 461-6. doi:10.1378/chest.102.2.461 - Pubmed citation
- 4. Kato N, Dake MD, Miller DC et-al. Traumatic thoracic aortic aneurysm: treatment with endovascular stent-grafts. Radiology. 1997;205 (3): 657-62. Radiology (abstract) - Pubmed citation
- 5. Reeder MM, Felson B. Reeder and Felson's gamuts in radiology, comprehensive lists of roentgen differential diagnosis. Springer Verlag. (2003) ISBN:0387955887. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 6. Agarwal P, Chughtai A, Matzinger F et-al. Multidetector CT of Thoracic Aortic Aneurysms1. Radiographics. 2009;29 (2): 537-552. Radiographics (full text) - doi:10.1148/rg.292075080
- 7. Isselbacher EM. Thoracic and abdominal aortic aneurysms. Circulation. 2005;111 (6): 816-28. Circulation (full text) - doi:10.1161/01.CIR.0000154569.08857.7A - Pubmed citation
- 8. Lavall D, Schäfers HJ, Böhm M et-al. Aneurysms of the ascending aorta. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2012;109 (13): 227-33. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2012.0227 - Free text at pubmed - Pubmed citation
- 9. Webb WR, Higgins CB. Thoracic Imaging. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. (2010) ISBN:1605479764. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 10. Loeys BL, Dietz HC. Loeys-Dietz Syndrome. 2008 Feb 28 [Updated 2013 Jul 11]. In: Pagon RA, Adam MP, Ardinger HH, et al., editors. GeneReviews® [Internet]. Seattle (WA): University of Washington, Seattle; 1993-2016. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK1133/
- 11. Rouchaud A, Brandt MD, Rydberg AM et-al. Prevalence of Intracranial Aneurysms in Patients with Aortic Aneurysms. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. doi:10.3174/ajnr.A4827 - Pubmed citation
- acute aortic syndrome
- thoracic aortic aneurysm
- abdominal aortic aneurysm
- endovascular aneurysm repair (EVAR)
- reporting tips for aortic aneurysms
- aortic coarctation
- aortic pseudocoarctation
- cervical aortic arch
- interrupted aortic arch
- transposition of the great arteries
- variant anatomy of the aortic arch
- traumatic aortic injuries