Penetrating ulcer of the thoracic aorta: what is it? How do we recognize it? How do we manage it?

J Vasc Surg. 1998 Jun;27(6):1006-15; discussion 1015-6. doi: 10.1016/s0741-5214(98)70003-5.


Background: Although classic type A and B aortic dissections have been well described, less is known about the natural history of penetrating atherosclerotic ulcers of the thoracic aorta. This study differentiates penetrating ulcer from aortic dissection, determines the clinical features and natural history of these ulcers, and establishes appropriate correlates regarding optimal treatment.

Methods: A retrospective review of patient records and imaging studies was conducted with 198 patients with initial diagnoses of aortic dissection (86 type A, 112 type B) at our institution from 1985 to 1997.

Results: Of the 198 patients, 15 (7.6%) were found to have a penetrating aortic ulcer on re-review of computed tomographic scans, magnetic resonance images, angiograms, echocardiograms, intraoperative findings, or pathology reports. Two ulcers (13.3%) were located in the ascending aorta; the other 13 (86.7%) were in the descending aorta. In comparison with those with type A or B aortic dissection, patients with penetrating ulcer were older (mean age 76.6 years, p = 0.018); had larger aortic diameters (mean diameter 6.5 cm); had ulcers primarily in the descending aorta (13 of 15 patients, 86.7%); and more often had ulcers associated with a prior diagnosed or managed AAA (6 of 15 patients, 40.0%; p = 0.0001). Risk for aortic rupture was higher among patients with penetrating ulcers (40.0%) than patients with type A (7.0%) or type B (3.6%) aortic dissection (p = 0.0001).

Conclusions: Accurate recognition and differentiation of penetrating ulcers from classic aortic dissection at initial presentation is critical for optimal treatment of these patients. For penetrating ulcer, the prognosis may be more serious than with classic type A or B aortic dissection. Surgical management is advocated for penetrating ulcers in the ascending aorta and for penetrating ulcers in the descending aorta that exhibit early clinical or radiologic signs of deterioration.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aneurysm, Dissecting / diagnosis
  • Aorta, Thoracic / diagnostic imaging
  • Aorta, Thoracic / pathology
  • Aortic Aneurysm, Thoracic / diagnosis
  • Aortic Diseases / complications
  • Aortic Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Aortic Diseases / mortality
  • Aortic Rupture / diagnosis*
  • Aortic Rupture / etiology
  • Aortic Rupture / mortality
  • Arteriosclerosis / complications
  • Arteriosclerosis / diagnosis
  • Arteriosclerosis / mortality
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Tables
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Radiography
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Survival Rate
  • Ulcer / complications
  • Ulcer / diagnosis*
  • Ulcer / mortality
  • Ultrasonography