Thoracic aortic aneurysm: How to counsel, when to refer

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To a cardiologist at the time of diagnosis

As soon as TAA is diagnosed, the patient should be referred to a cardiologist who has special interest in aortic disease. This will allow for appropriate and timely decisions about medical management, imaging, follow-up, and referral to surgery. Additional recommendations for screening of family members and referral to clinical geneticists can be discussed at this juncture. Activity restrictions should be reviewed at the initial evaluation.

To a surgeon relatively early

Size thresholds for surgical intervention are discussed below, but one should not wait until these thresholds are reached to send the patient for surgical consultation. It is beneficial to the state of mind of a potential surgical candidate to have early discussions pertaining to the types of operations available, their outcomes, and associated risks and benefits. If a patient’s aortic size remains stable over time, he or she may be followed by the cardiologist until significant size or growth has been documented, at which time the patient and surgeon can reconvene to discuss options for definitive treatment.

To a clinical geneticist

If 1 or more first-degree relatives of a patient with TAA or dissection are found to have aneurysmal disease, referral to a clinical geneticist is very important for genetic testing of multiple genes that have been implicated in thoracic aortic aneurysm and dissection.


Surgery to prevent rupture or dissection remains the definitive treatment of TAA when size thresholds are reached, and symptomatic aneurysm should be operated on regardless of the size. However, rarely are thoracic aneurysms symptomatic unless they rupture or dissect. The size criteria are based on underlying genetic etiology if known and on the behavior and natural course of TAA.

Size and other factors

Treatment should be tailored to the patient’s clinical scenario, family history, and estimated risk of rupture or dissection, balanced against the individual center’s outcomes of elective aortic replacement.32 For example, young and otherwise healthy patients with TAA and a family history of aortic dissection (who may be more likely to have connective tissue disorders such as Marfan syndrome, Loeys-Dietz syndrome, or vascular Ehler-Danlos syndrome) may elect to undergo repair when the aneurysm reaches or nearly reaches the diameter of that of the family member’s aorta when dissection occurred.2 On the other hand, TAA of degenerative etiology (eg, related to smoking or hypertension) measuring less than 5.5 cm in an older patient with comorbidities poses a lower risk of a catastrophic event such as dissection or rupture than the risk of surgery.11

Thresholds for surgery. Once the diameter of the ascending aorta reaches 6 cm, the likelihood of an acute dissection is 31%.11 A similar threshold is reached for the descending aorta at a size of 7 cm.11 Therefore, to avoid high-risk emergency surgery on an acutely dissected aorta, surgery on an ascending aortic aneurysm of degenerative etiology is usually suggested when the aneurysm reaches 5.5 cm or a documented growth rate greater than 0.5 cm/year.2,33

Additionally, in patients already undergoing surgery for valvular or coronary disease, prophylactic aortic replacement is recommended if the ascending aorta is larger than 4.5 cm. The threshold for intervention is lower in patients with connective tissue disease (> 5.0 cm for Marfan syndrome, 4.4–4.6 cm for Loeys-Dietz syndrome).2,33

Observational studies suggest that the risk of aortic complications in patients with bicuspid aortic valve aortopathy is low overall, though significantly greater than in the general population.18,34,35 These findings led to changes in the 2014 American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association guidelines on valvular heart disease,36 suggesting a surgical threshold of 5.5 cm in the absence of significant valve disease or family history of dissection of an aorta of smaller diameter.

A 2015 study of dissection risk in patients with bicuspid aortic valve aortopathy by our group found a dramatic increase in risk of aortic dissection for ascending aortic diameters greater than 5.3 cm, and a gradual increase in risk for aortic root diameters greater than 5.0 cm.37 In addition, a near-constant 3% to 4% risk of dissection was present for aortic diameters ranging from 4.7 cm to 5.0 cm, revealing that watchful waiting carries its own inherent risks.37 In our surgical experience with this population, the hospital mortality rate and risk of stroke from aortic surgery were 0.25% and 0.75%, respectively.37 Thus, the decision to operate for aortic aneurysm in the setting of a bicuspid aortic valve should take into account patient-specific factors and institutional outcomes.

A statement of clarification in the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association guidelines was published in 2015, recommending surgery for patients with an aortic diameter of 5.0 cm or greater if the patient is at low risk and the surgery is performed by an experienced surgical team at a center with established surgical expertise in this condition.38 However, current recommendations are for surgery at 5.5 cm if the above conditions are not met.

Ratio of aortic cross-sectional area to height

Although size alone has long been used to guide surgical intervention, a recent review from the International Registry of Aortic Dissection revealed that 59% of patients suffered aortic dissection at diameters less than 5.5 cm, and that patients with certain connective tissue diseases such as Loeys-Dietz syndrome or familial thoracic aneurysm and dissection had a documented propensity for dissection at smaller diameters.39–41

Size indices such as the aortic cross-sectional area indexed to height have been implemented in guidelines for certain patient populations (eg, 10 cm2/m in Marfan syndrome) and provide better risk stratification than size cutoffs alone.2,42

The ratio of aortic cross-sectional area to the patient’s height has also been applied to patients with bicuspid aortic valve-associated aortopathy and to those with a dilated aorta and a tricuspid aortic valve.43,44 Notably, a ratio greater than 10 cm2/m has been associated with aortic dissection in these groups, and this cutoff provides better stratification for prediction of death than traditional size metrics.27,28

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