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What is aortic dissection and the need for more awareness around the life-threatening condition

By Louise Forsyth, a medical negligence lawyer at Irwin Mitchell 

In PMQs on 9 March, Pauline Latham, MP for Mid Derbyshire, shared that her son, Ben, died from an aortic dissection aged 44, leaving a wife and two young children. 

Aortic dissection is a condition which kills over 2,000 people every year, more than are killed in road crashes. It is an emergency condition that can be devastating if missed. Research shows that a diagnosis of aortic dissection is considered in less than half of patients who arrive in an emergency department with the condition and that one third of patients with dissection are treated for a different, incorrect diagnosis.

Signs of aortic dissection

This was the experience of one of our clients when he attended hospital with intense chest and leg pain and with signs of symptoms of aortic dissection. None of the doctors thought about aortic dissection as a diagnosis. 

A scan that would have diagnosed the dissection wasn’t done, the possibility of a vascular cause for his pain wasn’t considered for hours and, as a result, he ended up having his leg amputated above the knee. As a young man who loved to play football several times a week, this has been completely devastating to him.

How aortic dissection occurs

The aorta is a major artery, carrying blood from the heart to other organs. Aortic dissection occurs when there is a tear in the wall of the aorta. The tear spreads along the length of the aorta and can rupture or interrupt the blood supply to other vital organs. 

It can affect adults of any age but can be dismissed, or not even considered, as a diagnosis for a young person. There are different types of dissection with a variety of symptoms and signs but, whatever the type, prompt diagnosis and treatment is essential. 

The importance of considering aortic dissection has been highlighted in recent publicity campaigns including the “Think Aorta” initiative launched by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine. One of the reasons the diagnosis is missed and treatment delayed is that the doctors are not even thinking about aortic dissection as a possible diagnosis.

Research funding to increase awareness

It is a tragedy that patients are dying or suffering life-changing injuries as a result of a failure to “think aorta”

Pauline Latham is seeking research funding to increase awareness and detection of aortic dissection. 

She praised the work of the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust, which aims to save lives by improving the diagnosis of aortic dissection, bringing treatment consistency across the whole patient pathway, policy changes and research.

We spoke with Mr Jonathan Boyle, President of the Vascular Society of Great Britain and Ireland and Mr Simon Kendall, President of the Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery in Great Britain and Ireland. They told us: "The Vascular Society of Great Britain and Ireland and the Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery in Great Britain and Ireland have worked closely with NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSEI) Specialised Commissioners, the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust and Aortic Dissection Awareness UK and Ireland on raising the awareness of aortic dissection to improve diagnosis and management.

"This collaborative work has resulted in the development of a national Aortic Dissection Toolkit, which will be launched on the FutureNHS platform on 14 March, 2022. Our aims are to ensure that we provide equity of access to excellent specialist services and improve outcomes for patients with aortic dissection."

This toolkit will hopefully propel aortic dissection to the top of the list when healthcare staff are thinking about a possible diagnosis for a patient, saving many lives and preventing heartbreak for countless families.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and families affected by care issues at our dedicated medical negligence section

Aortic Dissection occurs when there is a partial tear in the aortic wall.
It is a time critical-medical emergency that without diagnosis and treatment, is often fatal.”