Introduction 

Abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) screening is a way of detecting a dangerous swelling (aneurysm) of the aorta – the main blood vessel that runs from the heart, down through the abdomen to the rest of the body.

This swelling is far more common in men aged over 65 than it is in women and younger men, so men are invited for screening in the year they turn 65.

An AAA usually causes no symptoms, but if it bursts, it’s extremely dangerous and usually fatal. Around 8 out of 10 people with a ruptured AAA either die before they reach hospital or don’t survive surgery.

Read more about abdominal aortic aneurysm.

Screening involves a simple ultrasound scan of your stomach (abdomen), which takes about 10-15 minutes.

If your abdominal aorta is not enlarged, you don’t ever need to be tested again.

If you have a small to medium aneurysm, you'll be regularly monitored to check it doesn’t get dangerously larger.

If you are found to have a large aneurysm, you'll be seen by a vascular surgeon (a specialist in blood vessels) within two weeks. They will advise on whether you would benefit from treatment to reduce the risk of it bursting.

Why have AAA screening?

An AAA is sometimes picked up by chance – for instance, if you’re being tested for another condition.

In general, if you have an AAA, you won’t know. You probably won’t feel any pain or notice anything different.

But if the aneurysm bursts, it’s a medical emergency, and most people either die before they reach hospital or don’t survive surgery.

Screening is a way of detecting an aneurysm early. If a large aneurysm is detected before it bursts it can be treated. Accepting the invitation to screening cuts the risk of dying from an abdominal aortic aneurysm by about half.

The NHS AAA Screening Programme was set up in England in 2009 and has been offered throughout the UK since the end of 2013.

Read more about why screening is offered

When AAA screening is offered

Men aged over 65 are far more likely to have an AAA than women or younger men  so any man registered with a GP will receive a letter inviting him for screening in the year he turns 65.

Men aged over 65 can request a scan by contacting their local AAA screening service directly.

Read more about when AAA screening is offered

What happens during AAA screening?

The screening test for AAA is a simple, pain-free ultrasound scan of the abdomen that usually takes about 10-15 minutes.

The screening technician will ask you to lift up your shirt and then run a small ultrasound scanner on your abdomen, which will allow the thickness of your abdominal aorta to be measured on a monitor.

The technician will tell you the result straight away and your GP will also be informed.

Read more about what happens during AAA screening

Results

What happens next depends on the size of your abdominal aorta:

  • If it’s normal, you won’t ever be invited for another screening. An aneurysm grows so slowly that you’re unlikely to develop one after the age of 65.
  • If you have a small to medium-sized aneurysm, you’ll be invited back for regular scans to check its size.
  • If you have a large AAA, you’ll be referred to hospital to be seen by a vascular surgeon within two weeks. You will then be advised about treatment options but, generally, men with a large AAA are advised that the risk of a large aneurysm rupturing is more dangerous than having surgery to repair it.

Read more about AAA screening results

Abdominal aortic aneurysm: what is an AAA?

Jonothan Earnshaw, Consultant Vascular Surgeon and National Director of the NHS AAA Screening Programme, explains where the abdominal aorta is located and what an abdominal aortic aneurysm looks like.

Media last reviewed: 03/11/2014

Next review due: 03/11/2016

Page last reviewed: 30/08/2014

Next review due: 30/08/2016