Three hundred twenty-five cases of spontaneous aortic dissection seen at two institutions between 1965 and 1986 were reviewed to assess the incidence, morbid sequelae, and specific management of aortic branch compromise. Noncardiac vascular complications occurred in 33% of the study group, and in these patients the overall mortality rate (51%) was significantly (p less than 0.001) higher than in patients without (29%) such complications. Although aortic rupture was the strongest correlate of mortality (90%), death specifically related to vascular occlusion was common when such occlusion occurred in the carotid, mesenteric, and renal circulation. There was a strong correlation between stroke and carotid occlusion (22/26 cases), yet specific carotid revascularization was only used during the chronic phase of the disease. Similarly, peripheral operation was ineffective in reducing the mortality rate in the setting of mesenteric (87%) and renal (50%) ischemia. Fifteen patients required either fenestration or graft replacement of the abdominal aorta for acute obstruction, rupture, or chronic aneurysm development. Thirty-eight patients (12%) demonstrated some degree of lower extremity ischemia, and one third of these required a direct approach on the abdominal aorta or iliofemoral segments to restore circulation. Selected patients with acute aortic dissection may require peripheral vascular operation in accordance with a treatment strategy that directs initial attention to the immediate life-threatening complications.