Why have abdominal aortic aneurysm screening? 

If you have an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA), you won’t usually know. You probably won’t feel any pain or notice anything different. Screening is a way of detecting an aneurysm early.

An AAA might be picked up by chance while you are being tested for another problem – for example, if you are given a chest scan because of a persistent cough.

If the abdominal aortic artery gets particularly swollen, you might feel a pulsating feeling or pain in your stomach (abdomen) or back pain.

If you don't experience this, you won’t know you have an aneurysm until it bursts, when it becomes an emergency and is usually fatal. More than 8 out of 10 people with a ruptured AAA either die before they reach hospital or don’t survive emergency surgery.

However, if an aneurysm is found before it ruptures it can be treated – usually by surgery. During this procedure, the swollen section of the aorta is either replaced or strengthened with a section of synthetic tubing.

Because men aged over 65 are particularly at risk of developing an aneurysm, the NHS offers men in this age group screening in order to find aneurysms early, so they can be checked regularly or treated.

The easiest way to find out if you have an aneurysm is to have a screening test, where an ultrasound scan of your abdomen is taken.

The NHS AAA Screening Programme was introduced after research showed it could halve the number of deaths from burst aneurysms among men aged 65 and over.

Who is at risk of an abdominal aortic aneurysm?

Men are approximately six times more likely to have an abdominal aortic aneurysm than women. The chance of having an aneurysm increases with age.

The risk of having an abdominal aortic aneurysm can also increase if:

  • you smoke
  • you have high blood pressure
  • a brother, sister or parent has, or has had, an abdominal aortic aneurysm

Read more about the risk factors for an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

Deciding to be screened

Screening is a choice and all screening involves a balance of potential harms, as well as benefits.

The UK research study, which was set up to find out whether a national AAA screening programme would be worthwhile, has now been running for over 10 years, and shows that it will cut the risk of dying from an AAA by 48% in men over the age of 65.

There is no risk from the scan itself. However, if you find out from the scan that you have a large aneurysm, it could lead to difficult decisions about having surgery, which has its own risks.

Being told you have a life-threatening condition can also cause considerable anxiety.

It’s important to consider all the information carefully, and you will be sent an information leaflet with your screening letter to help you make this decision.

The NHS AAA Screening Programme has also developed an online decision aid to help you decide whether you want to be screened, and there is also a version you can print out (PDF, 3Mb).

If you decide you don’t want to be tested, you can phone your local screening service and ask to be removed from its list of men to invite.

Find out when AAA screening is offered.


Abdominal aortic aneurysm: risk factors

In this video, Jonothan Earnshaw, National Director of the NHS AAA Screening Programme, outlines the main risk factors for developing an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

Media last reviewed: 12/05/2016

Next review due: 12/05/2018

Page last reviewed: 30/08/2014

Next review due: 30/08/2017