What’s an aortic dissection?

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

By: Femi Cole

Related Medical Services:


Sometimes, sudden and intense chest pain doesn’t signify a heart attack. Sometimes, the pain is caused by something far deadlier.


Aortic dissection is a rare condition that compromises the aorta, the body’s main artery for transporting blood away from the heart. During an aortic dissection, the inner and middle layers of the aorta are forced apart by blood flowing from an injury or tear in the inner layer. This causes blood to flow where it normally wouldn’t.


An estimated 2 of every 10,000 patients experiences the condition. It can affect anyone but is most often seen in men ages 40 to 70, according to the National Institutes of Health.


Signs and symptoms of an aortic dissection include:


  • Sudden chest, upper back or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Leg pain, leg paralysis or difficulty walking
  • Sudden difficulty speaking or loss of vision

Although you may not be familiar with the rare condition, you may recognize a few well-known people who succumbed to or were seriously affected by aortic dissection.


Actors Alan Thicke, John Ritter and Lucille Ball died as a result of an aortic dissection but the health issues that arose ultimately contributed. Former Green Bay Packers executive John Jones survived the condition, but the health issues it left in its wake ultimately contributed to his departure from the organization.


“It’s a serious condition. Fortunately, if diagnosed early, the chance for treatment and recovery increases dramatically,” says Dr. Gregory Thom, a vascular surgeon with The Vascular Specialists at Aurora BayCare in Green Bay.


“It’s important we communicate to our patients and the public in general about the importance of eliminating the risk factors that are well within our control – smoking, controlling high blood pressure, etc. We must help minimize the potential for developing this dangerous condition.”


To lessen the risk of suffering an aortic dissection, make sure you:

  • Control your blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, keep it under control through prescription medication and physician-recommended lifestyle changes.
  • Don’t smoke. If you do smoke, stop. There are numerous resources available to help you quit.
  • Watch your weight. Follow a low-salt diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and exercise regularly.
  • Use your seat belt. This reduces the risk of traumatic injury to your chest area should you be in a serious car accident.
  • Partner with your doctor. If you have a family history of aortic dissection, a connective tissue disorder or a bicuspid aortic valve, tell your doctor. If you have an aortic aneurysm, find out how often you need monitoring and whether surgery is necessary to repair your aneurysm.

Dr. Gregory Thom is a general and vascular surgeon with Aurora BayCare General & Vascular Surgery and The Vascular Specialists at Aurora BayCare. He sees patients in Green Bay. For appointments, call 920-288-8250 or request one online.

© 2020 BayCare Clinic.

All Rights Reserved.

BayCare Clinic,, is the largest physician-owned specialty-care clinic in northeastern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It is based in Green Bay, Wisconsin. BayCare Clinic offers expertise in more than 20 specialties, with more than 100 physicians serving in 16 area communities. BayCare Clinic is a joint partner in Aurora BayCare Medical Center, a 167-bed, full-service hospital. Follow BayCare Clinic on Facebook and Twitter.