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Aortic Dissection

Discover the hidden dangers of aortic dissection and how early detection and prevention can save lives.

USMLE Guide: Aortic Dissection


Aortic dissection refers to a medical emergency involving a tear in the inner layer of the aorta, the main artery carrying oxygenated blood from the heart to the rest of the body. This condition requires immediate attention due to the potential for life-threatening complications. In this guide, we will discuss the etiology, clinical presentation, diagnostic approach, and management of aortic dissection.


Aortic dissection typically arises from a weakened aortic wall, which may be caused by various factors, including:

  1. Hypertension (most common risk factor)
  2. Connective tissue disorders (e.g., Marfan syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome)
  3. Bicuspid aortic valve
  4. Trauma or injury to the chest
  5. History of aortic valve replacement or repair
  6. Cocaine use

Clinical Presentation

The clinical presentation of aortic dissection can vary depending on the location and extent of the tear. The classic symptomatology consists of:

  1. Severe, tearing or ripping chest pain: Abrupt in onset, often described as the worst pain ever experienced.
  2. Radiation of pain: Often migrates to the back, neck, or abdomen.
  3. Hypertension: Due to involvement of the aortic arch or renal arteries.
  4. Pulse deficit: Weak or absent peripheral pulses, especially in the upper extremities.
  5. Neurological symptoms: Stroke-like symptoms may occur if cerebral vessels are affected.
  6. Syncope: Fainting or loss of consciousness may result from decreased blood flow to the brain.

Diagnostic Approach

Prompt diagnosis of aortic dissection is crucial for appropriate management. The following diagnostic modalities are commonly employed:

  1. EKG: To rule out myocardial infarction or other cardiac abnormalities.
  2. Chest X-ray: May show widened mediastinum or abnormal aortic contour.
  3. Computed tomography (CT) scan: Imaging of choice for diagnosing aortic dissection.
  4. Transesophageal echocardiography (TEE): Useful for evaluating the aortic valve and proximal aorta.
  5. Aortic angiography: Reserved for cases where CT or TEE results are inconclusive.


The management of aortic dissection involves both medical and surgical interventions. The main goals are to reduce aortic wall stress and prevent life-threatening complications. The approach depends on the type and extent of the dissection:

  1. Type A dissection: Involves the ascending aorta and requires immediate surgical intervention, usually with aortic repair or replacement.
  2. Type B dissection: Involves the descending aorta, and initial treatment involves medical management, including blood pressure control using intravenous beta-blockers and/or vasodilators.
  3. Pain control: Intravenous opioids are commonly used to alleviate severe pain.
  4. Monitoring: Continuous monitoring of blood pressure, heart rate, and end-organ perfusion is essential.
  5. Regular follow-up: Patients with aortic dissection require long-term follow-up to monitor aortic size, blood pressure control, and potential complications.


Aortic dissection is a critical condition requiring immediate recognition and management. Familiarity with the etiology, clinical presentation, diagnostic approach, and management of aortic dissection is crucial for physicians aiming to provide optimal care to patients. Remember, early diagnosis and appropriate intervention can significantly improve patient outcomes.

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