An aneurysm refers to a balloon-like bulge in an artery, typically from a backup of blood in that area.
Several different types of aneurysms can develop. The most common is an aortic aneurysm, which occurs in the aorta in either the chest or abdomen. A cerebral aneurysm occurs in the brain, usually at a branch between two arteries. Peripheral aneurysms occur in the groin or legs.
The main risks associated with an aneurysm occur if the artery bursts or dissects (splits in two) at the site of the aneurysm. This can cause internal bleeding that is dangerous and potentially fatal.
Aneurysms usually occur because of some kind of damage or injury to the artery walls. This can be caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries (atherosclerosis) or other issues related to high blood pressure, smoking or aging. Issues that affect overall heart health -- such as diet, exercise, weight, smoking and other lifestyle factors -- also can play a role in a person's risk for developing an aneurysm.
Symptoms of Aneurysms
When the actual aneurysm, or bulge in the artery, first occurs, most people feel no symptoms. But that's what makes them so dangerous. Over time, an aneurysm can grow larger and even rupture, which can lead to life-threatening symptoms. Any unusual pain or throbbing in the abdomen should be checked with a doctor. Stronger symptoms like severe pain, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, rapid heart rate or shock may indicate that an aneurysm has ruptured.
Lifestyle factors such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight are all important in preventing an aneurysm. If a doctor happens to find it early enough, it may be treated with medication alone that can help lower blood pressure, relax blood vessels and reduce its chance of bursting.
For large aneurysms or an aneurysm that has ruptured, some form of surgery is typically needed to repair the problems with the artery and its complications. The exact procedure will vary depending on the type of aneurysm and where it's located in the body.
SOURCES: U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; Society of Thoracic Surgeons; American Heart Association