Image of the heart during transesophageal ultrasound with Doppler mode


The aorta is the largest artery in the body. It carries oxygen-rich blood throughout your body.  

Aortic dissection is a tear that develops along the inner layer of the aorta. When this occurs, blood rushes through the tear, causing the inner and middle layers of the aorta to separate or dissect. If the blood breaks through the outer layer of the aorta the condition can be fatal.  

Risk factors for aortic dissection include: 

  • Chronic high blood pressure
  • Family history of aortic dissection
  • Hardening of the arteries
  • Aneurysm
  • Traumatic chest injury
  • Certain genetic diseases: 
    • Turner’s syndrome
    • Marfan syndrome
    • Other connective tissue disorders
    • Inflammatory or infectious conditions

Symptoms of aortic dissection are sudden and often severe, including: 

  • Severe chest pain 
  • Severe back pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Pain in the arms or legs
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Severe abdominal pain 
  • Sudden difficulty speaking, loss of vision, weakness, or paralysis of one side of your body (similar to symptoms of a stroke)

Care, Diagnosis & Treatment

Aortic Dissection Diagnosis

An aortic dissection can be a life-threatening event. If you believe you or someone near you may be suffering one, please call 9-1-1 immediately. An initial physician review will include taking your medical history and performing a physical exam, before ordering diagnostic tests.  

Diagnostic Tests

In order to see a tear in the aorta, more sensitive diagnostic tests may be used. These may include:

  • CT scan combines a series of x-ray images taken from different angles around your body and uses computer processing to create cross-sectional images (slices) of the bones, blood vessels and soft tissues inside your body.
  • Transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) uses an ultrasound probe inserted through the esophagus.
  • Aortic Angiogram uses a special dye and x-rays to see how blood flows through the aorta.
  • Magnetic Resonance Angiogram (MRA) is a type of MRI that looks specifically at the body’s blood vessels.
  • CT Scan combines a series of x-ray images taken from different angles around your body and uses computer


Because aortic dissection is a life-threatening condition, immediate treatment, including emergency surgery, is typically needed. Less severe dissections may be treated, at least initially, with medications. CMC has also pioneered cutting-edge endovascular treatments for certain types of aortic dissection, being first in New England to make these minimally-invasive options available to patients.

Cardiovascular & Thoracic Surgeons