The aorta is the largest artery in the human body, carrying oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the lower body. It starts at the left ventricle of the heart and travels downward toward the abdomen, with other important arteries branching off along the way. The aorta finally splits up into two other blood vessels, the common iliac arteries, which carry fresh blood to the pelvis and on to the legs.
The aorta is essential for life. It provides blood to almost the whole body; even the heart itself is kept supplied with oxygen and nutrients thanks to the aorta. You can therefore imagine the enormous risk to health if the aorta is in danger of rupturing.
How an Aortic Aneurysm Puts Your Life in Danger
The walls of the aorta are elastic in order to handle changes in blood pressure. However, sometimes the walls of the vessel do not easily return to their original size. The aorta develops a bulge, which inflates with blood much as a balloon inflates with air. If the bulge persists and measures more than one-and-a-half times the usual width of the blood vessel, a condition called an aortic aneurysm has developed. Typically, the blood vessel will continue to weaken over time, and the aneurysm will become larger and extend further along the aorta; a growth rate of about ten percent a year is average.
The chief danger from an aortic aneurysm is that the blood vessel will burst at the weakened spot, a process called aortic dissection or aortic rupture. If this happens, there will be catastrophic internal bleeding, shock, and a sudden loss of consciousness, followed by death. Even with immediate emergency medical care, the chance for survival is low. About 15,000 patients die every year from ruptured aneurysms.
Other complications can also result from an aortic aneurysm. Pressure building through the aorta can cause heart valves to malfunction, eventually causing heart failure. The bulging aorta can compress peripheral nerves, causing pain, weakness, or numbness in an arm or leg. Aneurysms also sometimes produce blood clots that can travel elsewhere in the body to cause a stroke or critical limb ischemia.
Often, there are few symptoms to warn a patient that he may have an aortic aneurysm. Depending on the location of the blood vessel defect, there can be pain in the abdomen, chest, back, or legs. Certain aneurysms located near the heart can cause hoarseness by pressing on the nerves that control the larynx. It’s estimated, however, that about 70 percent of patients with an aortic aneurysm experience no symptoms.
Medical screening is the primary way most aortic aneurysms are discovered. When a patient has one or more risk factors for aneurysm, a doctor may order an ultrasound to check for a bulge in the blood vessel. Once a bulge in the aorta is suspected, medical imaging can confirm the diagnosis and pinpoint the aneurysm.
The risk factors for aortic aneurysm are similar to those for many other cardiovascular ailments, and include these common conditions:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Coronary artery disease
- History of smoking
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
- Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
- High blood cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia)
- Family history
…and many others.
Conservative treatment of an aortic aneurysm begins with eliminating risk factors—smoking cessation and weight control are essential. Medication is the second line of attack: the goal will be to lower blood cholesterol and reduce blood pressure. None of these therapies will actually cure the aneurysm, but will minimize the risks of a rupture. There is about a 10 percent risk of death from an aneurysm that is treated only through medication and lifestyle changes.
If conservative treatment isn’t enough, surgery will have to be considered. Surgeons take slightly different approaches depending on whether the aortic bulge is in the chest area (a thoracic aneurysm) or below the diaphragm (an abdominal aneurysm). Open surgery will remove the bulging section of the aorta and graft a new section of blood vessel in the same place. The replacement vessel will be harvested from somewhere else in the body.
The patient’s age, his general health, and the location, size, and shape of the bulge will all be factors in deciding whether surgery is warranted. An alternative to open surgery for some patients is endovascular aneurysm repair, a less-invasive procedure that inserts a stent into the blood vessel; these operations may require less recovery time immediately after the operation, but may need follow-up surgery years later.
Surgeries to repair aneurysms have significant risks and imperfect records of success. Because the surgical process involves restricting blood circulation, the operation can inflict long-term damage to the liver or spinal cord. In many cases, the risks from the surgery outweigh the risks from the aneurysm itself. For small or slow-growing aneurysms, the safest course will often be to monitor the blood vessel at six-month intervals and postpone surgery until the last minute.
Claiming Social Security Disability Benefits for an Aortic Aneurysm
People diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm are often unable to engage in any vigorous activity that could elevate their blood pressure readings. In fact, people with life-threatening, enlarged aneurysms who are poor candidates for surgery may find it extremely difficult to perform everyday household activities. Holding down a job would be completely out of the question.
The Social Security Administration discusses aneurysms in a special section of its official Listing of Impairments. If you have an aortic aneurysm which was diagnosed by medical imaging tests and your therapy program hasn’t controlled the risk of rupture or dissection, then you may be eligible to receive Social Security disability benefits. Of course, in order to qualify, you will need to meet the other criteria for eligibility: you must not be earning a substantial amount of money from work right now, and you must be able to document a long work history that includes recent employment.
Getting all the details just right on your application can be a nearly impossible task when you’re dealing with a serious blood vessel condition. At Keefe Disability Law, we excel at helping people with severe cardiovascular diseases get the government benefits they deserve. If you are a resident of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, or Rhode Island, we urge you to request your free copy of our report, The Five Most Frequently Asked Questions About Social Security Disability. Then call us at 508-283-5500 (or toll-free at 888-904-6847) for a free case review.