Aortic dissection (AD) is a life-threatening medical emergency involving a tear in the aorta - the main artery from the heart, which carries blood to every part of the body. Aortic dissection causes more deaths in the UK each year than road traffic accidents.
An aortic dissection is usually very painful and the pain is usually sudden and intense. The pain may occur anywhere from the chest area up towards the head, neck and jaw, down the back and/or into the abdomen. It may also travel to the arms or legs. In some cases, the pain can feel like a heart attack. You can also lose consciousness. Although the pain is usually intense to start with, it can also move around and even subside, and a minority of dissections cause very little pain.
When the aorta tears like this, it is extremely serious. The dissection may disrupt blood flow to the heart, brain, limbs, organs or any part of the body, which will also then be affected.
The initial tear in the aorta can occur from just above the heart, or anywhere along the entire length of the aorta, to the abdomen. An aortic dissection is categorised according to where the initial tear in the aortic wall occurs. This also helps to guide treatment. The diagram above shows that Type A dissection is where the tear starts in the aorta as it arises from the heart (the ascendng aorta). Type B dissection is where the tear starts further along the aorta, after the aortic arch. Both types are a medical emergency that requires urgent assessment by an Aortic specialist.
For more information read our online handbook Aortic Dissection: The Patient Guide