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The aorta, the largest human artery, carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body. It begins in the left ventricle, reaches upward for a short distance and then curves back to the left where it passes over the left lung, descends along the spinal column through the diaphragm, eventually dividing into smaller branches. The curved section of the aorta between the ascending and descending portions is called the aortic arch.
In rare cases, the aortic arch does not form properly in a developing fetus. The unborn baby has several arched tissues; one arch forms the aorta, some are absorbed by the developing body, and others branch out and form arteries. In some instances, the aortic arch develops from two vessels instead of one, and presses down on the windpipe and esophagus. While this condition, called a double aortic arch, is present at birth it is often not discovered until later in childhood. The condition can cause serious digestive and respiratory issues, and is usually treated with surgery.
Another unusual congenital heart defect involves the development of a right arch instead of the normal left arch. The right and left designation refers to side of the trachea, or windpipe, on which the arch is located. If the heart has no other abnormalities, a child with this condition can generally function normally without any additional medical assistance.
An aneurysm is a bulge in a weakened spot on the wall of an artery. Aneurysms which occur anywhere in the aorta are called thoracic aortic aneurysms. If diagnosed in time, these can generally be treated successfully with surgery. If not treated, however, a thoracic aortic aneurysm will burst when it reaches a certain size, resulting in extensive internal bleeding, often leading to death.
Aortic arch syndrome is a name given to symptoms which appear when structural problems are present in the arteries that branch off the aortic arch. These can be caused by blood clots, trauma, or birth abnormalities and result in a reduced blood flow to the upper body. Symptoms include dizziness, blurred vision, weakness, blood pressure variations, respiratory problems and numbness in the arms. Surgery is generally required to correct the underlying structural problem.
Takayasu’s arteritis is another condition that is sometimes included under the aortic arch syndrome classification. Takayasu’s arteritis is an autoimmune disorder which appears primarily in Asian women. This condition causes inflammation in the aortic arch leading to arterial blockage, organ damage and symptoms generally associated with heart attacks and strokes. Initial treatment usually involves smoking cessation, low-fat diet, exercise programs and medications to control blood pressure and the autoimmune responses. Surgery and stenting are recommended in advanced stages of the disease.