Aortic dissections and aneurysms: Pathology review

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Aortic dissections and aneurysms: Pathology review


Cardiac tumors

Cardiac tumors




Aortic dissections and aneurysms: Pathology review

USMLE® Step 1 questions

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USMLE® Step 1 style questions USMLE

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A 28-year-old man is brought to the emergency department after being involved in a high-speed motor vehicle collision. The patient was a restrained driver traveling on the highway when he suddenly slammed into the back of a stopped semi-truck. Upon arrival to the emergency department, the patient reports severe substernal chest pain radiating to his left shoulder blade. His temperature is 37.0°C (98.6°F), pulse is 104/min, respirations are 18/min and blood pressure is 185/100 mmHg. Physical examination shows bruising over the anterior chest wall, but no crepitus is felt on palpation. Shoulder examination shows full passive and active range of motion bilaterally. A chest X-ray is obtained (see below):  

Reproduced from: Radiopaedia  

Which of the following is the most likely location of injury?   


Ronda is a 55 year old with a history of hypertension, diabetes and coronary artery disease who came to the emergency department with a 1 hour history of sudden chest pain that’s described as “something’s tearing inside my chest!” She says this pain is different from the occasional chest pain she gets when she exercises. She was given nitroglycerin in the ER but the pain did not improve. Her blood pressure is 175/95 in the right arm, but 130/80 in the left arm. An ECG shows left axis deviation, but no ST segment changes. Her troponin levels are normal. This is what her chest x-ray looked like. After seeing this x-ray, a CT of the chest was performed, and this is what it looked like.

Okay, so the aorta is subject to a lot of stress, so a lot can go wrong. First let’s look at aortic aneurysms which is an outpouching that occurs due to weakening of the aortic wall. A true aneurysm involves all three vessel layers; the tunica intima, media and adventitia. A dissection occurs when there is a tear in the tunica intima, allowing blood to literally “dissect” into the vessel wall. This may create the appearance of an aneurysm, but because it doesn’t involve all three layers, it’s a false, or pseudoaneurysm.

Now, that we got the basic terminology down, let’s take a closer look at aortic aneurysms. These usually occur in the abdominal aorta, but can also occur in the thoracic aorta. The most high yield and most important risk factor for abdominal aortic aneurysms is atherosclerosis. In atherosclerosis, chronic inflammation results in the release of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases, or MMPs, which degrade the extracellular matrix in the tunica media, weakening the aortic wall.


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  2. "Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, Twentieth Edition (Vol.1 & Vol.2)" McGraw-Hill Education / Medical (2018)
  3. "The genetic basis for aortic aneurysmal disease" Heart (2014)
  4. "Management of acute aortic dissection" The Lancet (2015)
  5. "Aortic dissection: a 250-year perspective" Tex Heart Inst J (2011)
  6. "Management of Acute Aortic Dissections" The Annals of Thoracic Surgery (1970)

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