The aorta is the main artery that delivers oxygenated blood from the heart to the tissues of the body for nutrition. The aorta originates at the heart and then travels upward in the chest toward the head (the ascending aorta), giving rise to the arteries that supply blood to the arms and head. It then makes a U-turn (the aortic arch) and heads downward in the chest (the descending aorta) and then into the abdomen (abdominal aorta) giving rise, along the way, to many arterial branches that feed the rest of the body.
Abnormal enlargement of the aorta may occur, particularly with certain conditions that weaken the aortic wall, such as hypertension and connective tissue diseases. The wall of the aorta has three distinct layers. When all layers stretch or balloon to an abnormally large size, this is referred to as an aortic aneurysm. An aortic dissection is a separate, but similarly dangerous condition that occurs when there is a tear in the innermost layer of the aortic wall. Both aortic aneurysm and dissection are potentially fatal conditions because they can rupture and cause fatal bleeding.
Detailed imaging of the aorta for diagnostic purposes can be accomplished using a variety of technologies. Transthoracic echocardiography (ultrasound imaging through the chest wall) can image and accurately measure the ascending aorta, as well as track its change in size over time. This allows for preventive intervention before dissection occurs. Transesophageal echocardiography (ultrasound imaging from the esophagus) is used selectively when greater detail of the aortic anatomy is required, such as when a tear is suspected in the lining of the aorta (aortic dissection). Ultrasonography techniques are also valuable in instantly providing a detailed survey of the cardiac structures that can be impacted by aortic disease, such as the aortic valve and left ventricular cavity size and function. CT scan and MRI are also powerful tools that can be used to image the entire aorta. At Lahey, state-of-the-art imaging capabilities are offered through the Echocardiography and Cardiac Catheterization Laboratories, as well as through the Diagnostic Radiology Department. Cardiovascular specialists are able to select the most appropriate test(s) for the individual patient, with a team of experts on-hand to review and analyze data generated from these tests and chart the most appropriate management course.