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Aortic dissection

Last updated: August 25, 2021

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An aortic dissection is a tear in the inner layer of the aorta that leads to a progressively growing hematoma in the intima-media space. Risk factors for aortic dissection include age and hypertension. Patients typically present with sudden onset severe pain radiating into the chest, back, or abdomen. A widened mediastinum on chest x-ray is characteristic of the diagnosis. The diagnosis is usually confirmed with CT angiogram in stable patients and transesophageal echocardiography (TEE) in unstable patients. Treatment options range from conservative measures (e.g., blood pressure optimization) to surgery (aortic stent graft), depending on the localization and severity of the dissection. Complete occlusion of branching vessels and aortic rupture are common complications. Even with treatment, mortality rates associated with aortic dissection are high.

Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.

There are two classifications of aortic dissection to help direct management. Stanford classification groups dissections by whether the ascending or descending aorta is involved. DeBakey classification categorizes dissections according to their origin and extent.

Stanford classification [4]

Stanford A = Affects ascending aorta; Stanford B = Begins beyond brachiocephalic vessels

DeBakey classification (rarely used) [4]

  • Type I
  • Type II
    • Dissections originate in, and are restricted to, the ascending aorta.
    • Generally requires surgery
  • Type III
    • Dissections originate in the descending aorta and most often extend distally.
    • Most cases can be managed by medical therapy.
    • Can be further subdivided into:
      • Type IIIa: limited to the descending thoracic aorta above the level of the diaphragm
      • Type IIIb: extends below the diaphragm

  • Common anatomic sites of origin
  • Transverse tear in the aortic intima (“entry”) → blood enters the media of the aorta and forms a false lumen in the intima-media space hematoma forms and propagates longitudinally downwards [5]
    • Rising pressure within the aortic wall → rupture
    • Occlusion of every single branching vessel (e.g., coronary arteries, arteries supplying the brain, renal arteries, arteries supplying the lower limbs) → ischemia in the affected areas (see “Complications” below)
    • A second intimal tear may result in a “reentry” into the primary aortic lumen.


Aortic dissection detection risk score (ADD-RS) [6]

The ADD-RS is a highly sensitive bedside clinical tool used to assess the risk of acute aortic dissection based on high-risk conditions, pain, and examination features.

Aortic dissection detection risk score (ADD-RS)
Risk categories Features Score if any feature present
Conditions 1
Pain characteristics
  • Chest, back, or abdominal pain with:
    • Abrupt onset
    • Severe intensity
    • Ripping or tearing
Examination findings 1
  • Score 2–3 (high risk): Expedite definitive imaging.
  • Score 0–1 (low or moderate risk): diagnostic workup (e.g., ECG, laboratory studies, and chest x-ray) as clinically indicated

ECG [7]

Should be ordered for all patients. Findings are variable and include:

Laboratory studies


Initial imaging in low to moderate risk patients [9][10]

Normal chest x-ray findings do not rule out aortic dissection. If clinical suspicion for acute aortic dissection persists, perform a second imaging study.

Definitive imaging [4]

Definitive imaging is used to determine the type of lumen, location, and extent of the dissecting membrane. The identification of a false lumen is highly suggestive of aortic dissection.


  • All high-risk patients: ADD-RS score of 2 or 3
  • Moderate and low-risk patients (ADD-RS score of 0 or 1) with:
    • Unexplained hypotension
    • No other diagnosis to explain the symptoms
    • Any concerning features present on chest x-ray

Modalities [4]

  • CT angiography of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis [4]
    • Indications: stable patients, surgical planning
    • Advantages: very high sensitivity and specificity (considered to be the gold standard) [4]
    • Suggestive findings
      • Intimal dissection flap
      • Double lumen
      • Aortic dilatation
      • Regions of malperfusion
      • Aortic hematoma (high-attenuation)
      • Contrast leak: indicates rupture

For other differential diagnosis considerations, see “Differential diagnoses of acute chest pain”.

Acute aortic occlusion [11][12]

The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.

Approach [4]

  • Urgent cardiothoracic surgical consult for all patients with suspected or confirmed dissection, regardless of location. [4]
  • Blood pressure control is essential in all patients to prevent progression of the dissection
  • Supportive care
  • Admission to surgical ICU with close monitoring and surveillance imaging

Surgical therapy [4]

Ascending aortic dissection is a surgical emergency!

Medical therapy

Hypotensive patients [4]

Avoid inotropes as they can worsen aortic wall stress.

Hypertensive patients [4]

Start beta-blocker therapy before vasodilators to avoid a reflex tachycardia!

Supportive care

Avoid thrombolytic therapy in patients with suspected aortic dissection.

We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.

  • In-hospital mortality due to aortic dissection ranges from 9 to 39%, depending on the type of dissection and treatment modality. [16][17]
  • Blood pressure control
  • Smoking cessation [4]
  • Screening and repair of rapidly expanding aneurysms (see “Therapy” and “Prevention” sections in “Aortic aneurysms”)
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