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What is an aortic dissection?

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Quick Answer

An aortic dissection develops when the wall of the aorta is torn, causing blood to build up between the inner and outer layers of the artery, states MedlinePlus. An aortic dissection can also cause a harmful blockage, preventing the artery from circulating blood to other organs.

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The aorta is a large artery that starts at the heart and branches off to the upper chest and lower abdomen, according to MedlinePlus. A dissected aortic wall creates two pathways, causing blood to keep flowing freely through one channel while collecting in the other. The blocked pathway can become dangerously enlarged, putting pressure on other sections of the artery and increasing the risk of an aortic aneurysm.

Aortic dissections are potentially fatal and often caused by tissue deterioration from high blood pressure, notes the Merck Manual Consumer Edition. Sudden, intense pain in the chest or upper back between the shoulder blades is the most common symptom. The pain is described as a ripping sensation, and the discomfort may progress along the aorta as the tear grows. If the dissection obstructs other arterial branches, the loss of blood flow to vital organs can trigger serious health problems, such as stroke and heart attack. Aortic dissections most often affect people between the ages of 40 and 70, and men are three times more likely than women to develop the condition.

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