Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Aortic dissection

4-minute read

Aortic dissection is a rare but very dangerous condition where there is a tear in the aorta, the large blood vessel that runs from your heart to the rest of your body. If you have symptoms that include a sudden, severe pain in your chest or upper back, call triple zero (000) straight away and ask for an ambulance.

What is aortic dissection?

The aorta is a blood vessel about the thickness of a garden hose that carries blood from the heart through the centre of the chest and into the abdomen.

Aortic dissection is where there is a tear in the innermost wall of the aorta. The layers of the wall come apart and blood surges in between. This is called dissection. It can cause the aorta to rupture and affect how much oxygen is delivered to the body’s organs.

Aortic dissection is often fatal, but it is rare. The sooner it’s diagnosed and treated, the higher the chances of survival. It happens most often to men aged in their 60s and 70s.

There are two types of aortic dissection:

  • Type A: The tear is in the upper part of the aorta. This is the most common and most dangerous type
  • Type B. The tear is in the lower part of the aorta

Causes of aortic dissection

Aortic dissection occurs because an area of the aortic wall is weak. This can happen due to high blood pressure, an injury, or because you are born with a weakness. In rare cases, aortic dissection can be caused by using cocaine, having an infection, or weightlifting.

Risk factors for aortic dissection

You are more at risk if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, an aortic aneurysm, you have had heart surgery, or you were born with a defect in the aorta or aortic valve.

People with some genetic conditions are also at higher risk. These conditions include Turner syndrome and connective tissue disorders including Marfan syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome

Symptoms of aortic dissection 

The main symptom of aortic dissection is a sudden, excruciating pain in your chest, upper back or abdomen. The pain feels sharp, ripping, stabbing or tearing and it might also spread into your jaw or down your neck or back.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • losing consciousness
  • breathlessness
  • feeling weak, numb or tingly on one side, like a stroke
  • a pulse that is weaker on one side of your body than on the other
  • the pulse on one side of your body is weaker than on the other
  • pain or paralysis in your leg, or difficulty walking
  • being very pale and sweaty
  • vomiting

Diagnosis and tests for aortic dissection

Aortic dissection is often confused with other heart conditions, such as a heart attack, so your doctor will run tests to rule out other causes of your symptoms. In hospital, you will be examined and may have a series of tests that include an angiogram, x-ray, MRI, CT, ultrasound, echocardiogram or transoesophageal echocardiogram (TOE). 

Treatments for aortic dissection

Treatment depends on which part of the aorta is affected. It can involve surgery and medicines to lower your blood pressure and reduce your heart rate. You might need an aortic valve replacement or a coronary bypass.

You may need to keep taking blood pressure medicine for the rest of your life and you will need regular checks with your doctor.

Preventing aortic dissection

Look after your heart by leading a healthy lifestyle. Give up smoking, manage your blood pressure and diabetes if you have it, stay physically active and keep to a healthy weight.

It is important to follow your doctor’s advice if you have an aortic aneurysm, a genetic condition that increases your risk of aortic dissection, or if you have a family history of the condition.

Last reviewed: August 2018

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

How to keep your heart healthy | The Heart Foundation

Advice and information on the best ways to keep your heart healthy.

Read more on Heart Foundation website

Heart health (cardiovascular health) information video | myVMC

Keeping a healthy heart by quitting smoking and healthy eating reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and high blood pressure.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

What is normal blood pressure | The Heart Foundation

Answers to common questions about blood pressure. Such as what is normal blood pressure, what is high blood pressure, what causes high blood pressure and how to control high blood pressure.

Read more on Heart Foundation website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo