Case 25: Aortic Dissection

A 44 year old male with a history of heroin abuse presents to the emergency department with altered mental status.  Per EMS, the patient was found on the street with decreased level of consciousness and poor respiratory effort.  EMS was concerned about opioid overdose, and he was treated with 4mg Narcan, with improvement in his mental status.  

Upon arrival to the ED, he was noted to be agitated and tachypneic with RR in the 40’s.  

Vitals: BP 90/65 mmHg, HR 110, O2 100% on RA, glucose 158.

He is alert and oriented to person, month, and place, but appears agitated and confused.  He denies any complaints other than shortness of breath, and states he felt fine before using heroin.  He denies any past medical history.

Exam notable for tachycardia, diffuse rhonchi throughout all lung fields, 2+ nonpitting lower extremity edema.  He is neurologically intact with 2+ pulses throughout.

A bedside echocardiogram was performed, what do you see?  What are your next steps?

PS long
dilated aortic root
aortic dissection suprasternal ultrasound
abdominal aortic dissection ultrasound
abdominal aortic dissection ultrasound
dissection to iliacs ultrasound

Answer and Learning Points

Answer:

The first two images show a parasternal long-axis view, with a dilated aortic root measuring approximately 4.2cm.  Also notice the pericardial effusion with a homogenous layer that appears fixed to the pericardium.  At the time it was unclear whether this represented a clot within the pericardial sac, or was superficial to it.

Given the dilated aortic root, a suprasternal short-axis view was obtained to assess the proximal aorta, with the short axis view seen on the third image.  A flap was visualized in the aortic lumen, significant for an ascending aortic dissection.  The dissection was then visualized in the abdominal aorta, extending distal to the common iliac arteries, seen in the last images.

The patient was placed on esmolol drip and later required vasopressor support.  CT angiography was obtained, confirming a Type A aortic dissection.  He was transferred to a nearby hospital for emergent repair of his ascending and descending aortic dissection.  

Per the operative report, the patient had developed a significant pericardial effusion by the time he reached the OR, and the visualized homogenous layer above most likely represented a blood clot within the pericardium.

Learning Points:

    • While CTA remains the gold standard for diagnosis of aortic dissection, POCUS remains a great tool for diagnosing both ascending and descending aortic dissection, particularly in the unstable patient.
    • In addition to directly visualizing the dissection flap, TTE can also be used to identify patients with high risk features, such as those with cardiac tamponade, severe aortic dilatation, severe aortic regurgitation, regional wall motion abnormalities, and decreased ejection fraction (1).
    • TTE has been shown to have a sensitivity of 78-90% and specificity 87-96% for type A dissection in older studies (2,3), and in more recent studies showing improved sensitivity up to 97-99% (1,4,5) and specificity 100% (4) with improved image quality.
    • The suprasternal notch views are particularly useful in evaluating the proximal ascending aorta, and allow the operator to assess for aortic dissection, coarctation, dilatation of the aortic arch, and retrograde flow from the descending aorta.

References

1. Sobczyk D, Nycz K. Feasibility and accuracy of bedside transthoracic echocardiography in diagnosis of acute proximal aortic dissection. Cardiovasc Ultrasound. 2015;13:15.

2. Evangelista A, Flachskamp FA, Erbel R, Antonini-Canterin F, Vlachopoulos C, Rocchi G, et al. Echocardiography in aortic diseases: EAE recommendations for clinical practice. Eur J Echocardiogr. 2010;11:645–58. doi: 10.1093/ejechocard/jeq056.

3. Nienaber CA, von Kodolitsch Y, Nicolas V, Siglow V, Piepho A, Jaup T, et al. The diagnosis of thoracic aortic dissection by noninvasive imaging procedures. N Engl J Med. 1993;328:1–9. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199301073280101.

4. Cecconi M, Chirillo F, Constantini C, Iacobone G, Lopez E, Zanoli R, et al. The role of transthoracic echocardiography in the diagnosis and management of acute type A aortic syndrome. Am Heart J. 2012;163(1):112–8. doi: 10.1016/j.ahj.2011.09.022.

5. Nazerian, P., Vanni, S., Castelli, M. et al.Diagnostic performance of emergency transthoracic focus cardiac ultrasound in suspected acute type A aortic dissection. Intern Emerg Med9, 665–670 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11739-014-1080-9

This post was written by Rachna Subramony MD, Alex Anshus MD, with editing from Sukhdeep Singh MD, Charles Murchison MD and Amir Aminlari MD.

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