Exercise With an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm

An aneurysm is a pathologic dilatation of a blood vessel due to weakening of the vessel’s wall. The abdominal aorta is a major artery, which arises directly from the heart and supplies blood to the bottom half of your body. Abdominal aortic aneurysms are usually asymptomatic until serious complications arise. If you have been diagnosed with this type of aneurysm, it is important for you to be aware of the risks associated with exercise, including rupture or dissection of the aortic artery.

A middle aged woman is shown how to use handweights by a doctor. (Image: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Getty Images)

Abdominal Aortic Aneurysms

Abdominal aortic aneurysms, or AAAs, are found in 2 percent of men older than the age of 55 and the male to female ratio of occurrence is 8-to-1. The root cause of aneurysms involves damage to the walls of blood vessels. Tobacco smoking and atherosclerosis are two well-established causes of vascular damage, which can lead to an AAA. Once the vessel wall has been weakened, elevated pressures within the artery may produce the ballooning and pathologic dilatation associated with aneurysms. Hypertension is a common source of this elevated pressure. Other hereditary conditions, which lead to vessel weakness, have been associated with AAAs as well.

Natural Progression of AAAs

Once an aneurysm has formed, the artery will continue to increase in diameter; this is done to relieve the stress placed on it by the high blood pressure. Unfortunately, this means that aneurysms have a tendency to keep growing until they eventually rupture. When this occurs, the patient experiences excruciating pain in the chest and abdomen, which radiates to the back as blood enters the abdominal cavity. According to MayoClinic.com, these patients typically present with severe hypotension and require emergency surgery to prevent them from bleeding out internally. AAAs can be detected before progressing to this point either with ultrasound or with a stethoscope placed on the abdomen.

Prevention

AAAs can be detected before progressing to the point of rupture. This can be accomplished either with ultrasound or by listening with a stethoscope on the abdomen. When your physician performs routine physical exams, she will likely listen for sounds of turbulence in your abdominal aorta. Also known as a bruit, these abnormal sounds coming from abdominal aneurysms are due to the chaotic movement of blood through the dilated portion of the artery.

Exercise with AAA

The root problem with AAAs is a weak vessel wall combined with high blood pressure. If you have been diagnosed with this condition, or there is a family history of aneurysms and dissections, it is important to perform low intensity exercise to avoid increasing your blood pressure to dangerous levels. A 2003 study in "JAMA" recommends patients with known aneurysms to exercise with extreme caution. The study recommends limiting activities such as weight lifting because of the elevated risk of dissection.

Applications

Exercise is an important part of maintaining health and the presence of an abdominal aortic aneurysm should not stop you from doing so. In fact, exercise can be helpful in reversing the processes that caused the aneurysm in the first place: namely, atherosclerosis and hypertension. Low intensity aerobic exercise will help you manage these underlying conditions and will present minimal risk for dissection of your AAA.

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