February Internal Vascular Series: Abdominal Aortic Aneurysms

Last month, readers may have read the story about Barbara Unger, a Tucson woman who narrowly escaped a life-threatening situation due to a serendipitous screening.

Unger was diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurysm, also known as an AAA to vascular surgeons and their patients.  AAA’s account for nearly 15,000 deaths each year, and they are the 13th leading cause of death in the United States. 

In an AAA, the wall of the aorta, the main artery that carries blood from the heart, permanently balloons out in a patient’s abdomen due to the pressure of blood passing through.  If it ruptures, the results can be catastrophic.

Who’s at risk? 

Dr. Luis Leon,Agave Surgical

Dr. Luis Leon,
Agave Surgical

“The condition typically affects Caucasian men who have smoked, and have high blood pressure.  Women, African Americans and diabetics tend to have a lower risk, but AAA’s tend to rupture more often in women than men, perhaps because of the smaller size of a woman’s arteries,” said Dr. Luis Leon of Agave Surgical. 

Repairing AAA’s through open surgery was developed in the 1950s, but required at least a week-long hospital stay.  The minimally-invasive technique that has since been developed requires surgeons to make just a small incision in the patient’s groin. 

“With this approach, the patient can go home the next day. Overall, there is less blood loss, and complications are dramatically reduced,” explained Dr. Leon.

There are ongoing advancements in the vascular field, and a renewed emphasis on screening since AAA’s often don’t present any symptoms.  “Most people come into the hospital with acute back pain.  Unfortunately at that point the aneurysm has ruptured,” Dr. Leon said. 

Current guidelines advise men who are between 35 and 65 years old and have a history of smoking to get an ultrasound of their belly.  “It’s painless, it’s inexpensive, and it takes five minutes.  These people need to get their aortas checked,” stressed Dr. Leon.  “If an aneurysm measures between three and five centimeters, the patient should be checked every six months to a year in order to ensure it doesn’t reach a critical size.  Aneurysms that measure five centimeters or larger generally should be considered for repair.”

In an effort to keep health care professionals informed about advancements in treatment options in the vascular field, Tucson Medical Center supports a monthly series dedicated to vascular disease.  For February, Dr. Leon spoke about state-of-the-art therapy for AAA’s to physicians, nurses and ultrasound technologists.

TMC’s internal vascular series serves a valuable role in keeping clinical staff aware of the latest techniques and devices available to treat vascular problems.  It improves care by building on what TMC staff already knows about caring for these patients.  With a greater understanding of what these patients are going through, they’re able to provide even higher quality compassionate care.

For more information on abdominal aortic aneurysm screening, click here.

For information to help you determine if you should get a screening test, click here.

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