A localised swelling or dilatation of an artery (see ARTERIES) due to weakening of its wall. The most common sites are the AORTA, the arteries of the legs, the carotids and the subclavian arteries. The aorta is the largest artery in the body and an aneurysm may develop anywhere in it. A dissecting aneurysm usually occurs in the ﬁrst part of the aorta: it is the result of degeneration in the vessel’s muscular coat leading to a tear in the lining; blood then enters the wall and tracks along (dissects) the muscular coat. The aneurysm may rupture or compress the blood vessels originating from the aorta: the outcome is an INFARCTION in the organs supplied by the aﬀected vessel(s). Aneurysms may also form in the arteries at the base of the brain, usually due to an inherited defect of the arterial wall.
Aneurysms generally arise in the elderly, with men aﬀected more commonly than women. The most common cause is degenerative atheromatous disease, but other rarer causes include trauma, inherited conditions such as MARFAN’S SYNDROME, or acquired conditions such as SYPHILIS or POLYARTERITIS NODOSA. Once formed, the pressure of the circulating blood within the aneurysm causes it to increase in size. At ﬁrst, there may be no symptoms or signs, but as the aneurysm enlarges it becomes detectable as a swelling which pulsates with each heartbeat. It may also cause pain due to pressure on local nerves or bones. Rupture of the aneurysm may occur at any time, but is much more likely when the aneurysm is large. Rupture is usually a surgical emergency, because the bleeding is arterial and therefore considerable amounts of blood may be lost very rapidly, leading to collapse, shock and even death. Rupture of an aneurysm in the circle of Willis causes subarachnoid haemorrhage, a life-threatening event. Rupture of an aneurysm in the abdominal aorta is also life-threatening.
Treatment Treatment is usually surgical. Once an aneurysm has formed, the tendency is for it to enlarge progressively regardless of any medical therapy. The surgery is often demanding and is therefore usually undertaken only when the aneurysm is large and the risk of rupture is therefore increased. The patient’s general ﬁtness for surgery is also an important consideration. The surgery usually involves either bypassing or replacing the aﬀected part of the artery using a conduit made either of vein or of a man-made ﬁbre which has been woven or knitted into a tube. Routine X-ray scanning of the abdominal aorta is a valuable preventive procedure, enabling ‘cold’ surgery to be performed on identiﬁed aneurysms.