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  • Widened mediastinum on chest radiograph.

  • With rupture, sudden onset of chest pain radiating to the back.


Most thoracic aortic aneurysms are due to atherosclerosis; syphilis is a rare cause. Disorders of connective tissue and Ehlers-Danlos and Marfan syndromes also are rare causes but have important therapeutic implications. Traumatic, false aneurysms, caused by partial tearing of the aortic wall with deceleration injuries, may occur just beyond the origin of the left subclavian artery. Less than 10% of aortic aneurysms occur in the thoracic aorta.


A. Symptoms and Signs

Most thoracic aneurysms are asymptomatic (eFigure 12–14). When symptoms occur, they depend largely on the size and the position of the aneurysm and its rate of growth. Substernal back or neck pain may occur. Pressure on the trachea, esophagus, or superior vena cava can result in the following symptoms and signs: dyspnea, stridor or brassy cough, dysphagia, and edema in the neck and arms as well as distended neck veins. Stretching of the left recurrent laryngeal nerve causes hoarseness. With aneurysms of the ascending aorta, aortic regurgitation may be present due to dilation of the aortic valve annulus. Rupture of a thoracic aneurysm is catastrophic because bleeding is rarely contained, allowing no time for emergent repair.

eFigure 12–14.

Chest radiograph showing an aneurysm of the aortic arch. (Used, with permission, from H Goldberg.)

B. Imaging

The aneurysm may be diagnosed on chest radiograph by the calcified outline of the dilated aorta. CT scanning with contrast enhancement is the modality of choice, but MRA can be used to demonstrate the anatomy and aneurysmal size and to exclude lesions that can mimic aneurysms, such as neoplasms or substernal goiter. There is no low-cost alternative (eg, ultrasonography) for screening or surveillance. Cardiac catheterization and echocardiography may be required to describe the relationship of the coronary vessels to an aneurysm of the ascending aorta.


Indications for repair depend on the location of dilation, rate of growth, associated symptoms, and overall condition of the patient. Descending thoracic aneurysms measuring 6 cm or larger may be considered for repair, since there is a 5-year survival of 54% in these patients. Aneurysms of the descending thoracic aorta are treated routinely by endovascular grafting. Repair of arch aneurysms should be undertaken only if there is a skilled surgical team with an acceptable record of outcomes for these complex procedures. The availability of thoracic aortic endograft technique using complex branched endovascular reconstructions for aneurysms involving the arch or visceral aorta (custom-made grafts with branches to the vessels involved in the aneurysm) does not change the indications for aneurysm repair. Aneurysms that involve the proximal aortic arch or ascending aorta ...

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