Thoracic aortic injury

Thoracic aortic injury is a life threatening, and often life ending event. It can result from either blunt or penetrating trauma:

  1. blunt trauma (more common)
    • rapid deceleration (eg. motor vehicle accident, fall from great height)
    • crush injury
  2. penetrating trauma

Approximately 80% of patients with thoracic aortic injury die at the scene of the trauma. In those who make it to hospital, clinical diagnosis is difficult. The signs and symptoms are non-specific and distracting injuries are often present. Clinical presentation may include chest or mid-scapular back pain, signs of external chest trauma or haemodynamic instability. Clinical suspicion is usually based on mechanism and severity of the injury, the haemodynamic status of the patient and/or the presence of related injuries. The diagnosis ultimately relies on appropriate imaging.

Trauma to the aorta may result in:

An aortic dissection is a longitudinal tear in the aortic wall and is rarely a sequelae of trauma.

Blunt thoracic aortic injury is uncommonly an isolated injury. A large autopsy study found that 97% of victims of aortic injury had other traumatic injuries outside the chest 5.


The isthmus is portion of the proximal descending thoracic aorta between the left subclavian artery origin and the ligamentum arteriosum. Tethering of the aorta by the ligamentum arteriosum is believed to account for the high frequency of aortic injury in this region.

The above figures represent the site of injury in those patients who present to hospital. The ascending aorta is injured in 20 -25% of cases at autopsy but most of these patients die at the scene from serious complications such as a ruptured aortic valve, coronary artery laceration or haemopericardium with pericardial tamponade.

Plain radiograph

Supine chest radiograph is the initial screening investigation in the trauma patient. The mediastinum on a portable supine film can be difficult to assess, especially if taken in expiration or if the patient is rotated. Direct signs of aortic injury are not visible on chest radiographs but indirect signs may be detected: either mediastinal haematoma or signs of concomitant chest injuries.

Signs of mediastinal haematoma:

  • widened mediastinum (more than 8 cm when supine, or more than 6 cm when upright)
  • indistinct or abnormal aortic contour
  • deviation of trachea or NGT to the right
  • depression of left main bronchus
  • loss of the aortopulmonary window
  • widened paraspinal stripe
  • widened paratracheal stripe
  • left apical pleural cap
  • large left haemothorax

The detection of mediastinal haematoma on CXR has a high sensitivity for aortic injury but a low specificity because most mediastinal haematoma is due to other causes such as tearing of mediastinal vessels, sternal injury or thoracic spine injury. Only 12.5% of mediastinal haematoma is due to aortic injury. However, the negative predictive value of a normal CXR of good quality is ~97% but this likely reflects the low incidence of blunt thoracic aortic injury.

Non-contrast CT chest

May show indirect signs of aortic injury:

  • mediastinal haematoma
  • periaortic fat stranding
  • other chest injuries
CTA chest

The investigation of choice. Excellent at showing direct signs of aortic injury as well as indirect signs - sensitivity 100%; specificity 100%.

Signs of mediastinal haematoma:

  • abnormal soft tissue density around the mediastinal structures
  • location is important – periaortic haematoma much more suggestive of aortic injury than isolated mediastinal haematoma remote from the aorta.

Signs of aortic injury:

  • intraluminal filling defect (intimal flap or clot)
  • abnormal aortic contour (mural haematoma)
  • pseudoaneurysm
  • extravasation of contrast
Conventional angiography

Rarely performed due to the advent of high quality CTA.

Signs of aortic injury:

  • resistance in advancing guidewire
  • intraluminal filling defect (intimal flap or clot)
  • abnormal aortic contour (mural haematoma)
  • pseudoaneurysm
  • extravasation of contrast


  • general risks of angiography
  • dissection or rupture due to guidewire or catheter
Other imaging methods

Generally not used in the acute setting:

  • MRI
  • transoesphageal echocardiography
  • intravascular ultrasound

Aortic injury is a surgical emergency. Treatment is with an aortic stent graft or open repair. Mortality is very high 3:

  • >95% if untreated
  • ~80% die immediately
  • >30% if in hospital and treated

Other causes of widened mediastinum on a chest radiograph

  • technical factors
  • vascular ectasia
  • mediastinal lipomatosis
  • mediastinal masses

Mimics of a mediastinal haematoma on CT include

  • artefact
  • thymic tissue
  • unopacified vessels
  • pericardial recesses
  • paramediastinal lung atelectasis

Mimics of aortic injury on CTA or conventional angiography

  • aortic pulsation motion artefact (typically left anterior and right posterior aspects of the ascending aorta)
  • streaming of contrast
  • aortic atheroma
  • ductus diverticulum
  • infundibulum of branch vessel
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Article Information

rID: 2171
Systems: Chest, Vascular, Trauma
Section: Pathology
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Injuries of the thoracic aorta
  • Injuries to the thoracic aorta
  • Traumatic thoracic aorta injury
  • Traumatic thoracic aorta injuries

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Cases and Figures

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    Figure 1: aorta
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    Case 1: aortic transection
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    Aortic transection
    Case 2: aortic transection
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    Case 3: post traumatic pseudoaneurysm
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    Case 4: partial transection and pseduoaneurysm
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    Case 5
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    Case 6: post stent repair
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    Case 9
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    Case 10: traumatic aortic transection
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    Case 12
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