The age at which coarctation of the aorta is diagnosed depends on the severity of the condition. If the aortic coarctation is severe, it's usually diagnosed during infancy. Coarctation of the aorta is occasionally diagnosed on sonogram of the fetus.
Adults and older children who are diagnosed with coarctation of the aorta may have milder cases and not have symptoms. They may often appear healthy until a doctor detects:
- High blood pressure in the arms
- A blood pressure difference between the arms and legs, with higher blood pressure in the arms and lower blood pressure in the legs
- A weak or delayed pulse in the legs
- A heart murmur — an abnormal whooshing sound caused by faster blood flow through the narrowed area
Tests to confirm a diagnosis of coarctation of the aorta may include:
- Echocardiogram. Echocardiograms use sound waves to create moving images of your heart that can be viewed on a video screen. This test can often show your doctor the location and severity of the aortic coarctation. It can also reveal other heart defects, such as a bicuspid aortic valve. Doctors often use echocardiograms to diagnose coarctation of the aorta and determine best treatment options for you.
Electrocardiogram (ECG). An electrocardiogram records the electrical signals in your heart. During this test, sticky patches (electrodes) are attached to your chest and limbs. The patches have wires that connect to a monitor. They record the electrical signals that make your heart beat. A computer records the information and displays it as waves on a monitor or on paper.
If the coarctation of the aorta is severe, the ECG may show thickening of the walls of the lower heart chambers (ventricular hypertrophy).
- Chest X-ray. A chest X-ray creates images of your heart and lungs. A chest X-ray might show a narrowing in the aorta at the site of the coarctation or an enlarged section of the aorta or both.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to produce detailed images of your heart and blood vessels. This test can show the location and severity of the coarctation of the aorta, damage to other blood vessels, and any other heart defects. Your doctor may also use MRI results to guide treatment.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan uses a series of X-rays to create detailed cross-sectional images of your body.
- CT angiogram. A CT angiogram uses a dye and special X-rays to show the inside of your coronary arteries. It reveals blood flow in your veins and arteries. The test can show the location and severity of the coarctation of the aorta and determine whether it affects other blood vessels in your body. A CT angiogram can also be used to detect other heart defects or help guide treatment options.
Cardiac catheterization. During this procedure, your doctor inserts a long, thin tube (catheter) into an artery or vein in your groin, arm or neck and threads it to your heart using X-ray imaging. Sometimes, dye is injected through the catheter to help your heart structures show up more clearly on the X-ray images.
Cardiac catheterization can help determine the severity of the aortic coarctation. Your doctor may use it to help plan surgery or other treatment, if you need it. Catheter procedures may also be used to perform certain treatments for coarctation of the aorta.
Treatment for coarctation of the aorta depends on your age at the time of diagnosis and the severity of your condition. Other heart defects might be repaired at the same time as aortic coarctation.
A doctor trained in congenital heart conditions will evaluate you and determine the most appropriate treatment for your condition.
Medication isn't used to repair coarctation of the aorta. However, your doctor may recommend it to control blood pressure before and after stent placement or surgery. Although repairing aortic coarctation improves blood pressure, many people still need to take blood pressure medication after a successful surgery or stenting.
Babies with severe coarctation of the aorta often are given a medication that keeps the ductus arteriosus open. This allows blood to flow around the constriction until the coarctation is repaired.
Surgery or other procedures
There are several surgeries to repair aortic coarctation. Your doctor can discuss with you which type is most likely to successfully repair your or your child's condition. The options include:
- Resection with end-to-end anastomosis. This method involves removing the narrowed segment of the aorta (resection) followed by connecting the two healthy sections of the aorta together (anastomosis).
- Subclavian flap aortoplasty. A part of the blood vessel that delivers blood to your left arm (left subclavian artery) might be used to expand the narrowed area of the aorta.
- Bypass graft repair.This technique involves bypassing the narrowed area by inserting a tube called a graft between the portions of the aorta.
- Patch aortoplasty. Your doctor might treat your coarctation by cutting across the narrowed area of the aorta and then attaching a patch of synthetic material to widen the blood vessel. Patch aortoplasty is useful if the coarctation involves a long segment of the aorta.
Balloon angioplasty and stenting
This procedure may be used as a first treatment for aortic coarctation instead of surgery, or it may be done if narrowing occurs again after coarctation surgery.
During balloon angioplasty, your doctor inserts a thin, flexible tube (catheter) into an artery in your groin and threads it through your blood vessels to your heart using X-ray imaging.
Your doctor places an uninflated balloon through the opening of the narrowed aorta. When the balloon is inflated, the aorta widens and blood flows more easily. Sometimes, a mesh-covered hollow tube (stent) is placed in the aorta to keep the narrowed part of the aorta open.
Explore Mayo Clinic studies testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this condition.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Although coarctation of the aorta may be repaired, regular doctor's checkups are needed for the rest of your or your child's life to monitor for complications.
Your doctor will also check your blood pressure and treat it as needed.
Here are a few tips for managing your condition:
Get regular exercise. Regular exercise helps lower blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about whether you need to restrict certain physical activities, such as weightlifting, which can temporarily raise your blood pressure.
Your doctor may evaluate you and conduct exercise tests prior to deciding if you should participate in competitive sports or lift weights.
- Consider pregnancy carefully. Women with coarctation of the aorta, even after repair, may have a higher risk of aortic rupture, aortic dissection or other complications during pregnancy and delivery. If you are thinking of having a baby, talk to your doctor to determine how to safely do so. If you have had aortic coarctation repair and are considering becoming pregnant, careful management of your blood pressure is important to help keep you and your baby healthy.
- Prevent endocarditis. Endocarditis is an inflammation of the inner lining of the heart or of its structures, caused by a bacterial infection. You generally don't need to take antibiotics before certain dental procedures to prevent endocarditis. However, if you've had endocarditis in the past or had valve replacement surgery, then your doctor may recommend antibiotics.
Preparing for your appointment
If you or your child develops signs and symptoms of coarctation of the aorta, call your doctor. After an initial exam, you or your child may be referred to a doctor trained in the diagnosis and treatment of heart conditions (cardiologist).
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
- Write down any signs and symptoms you or your child has had, and for how long.
- Write down key medical information, including any other health conditions and the names of any medications you or your child is taking.
- Find a family member or friend who can come with you to the appointment, if possible. Someone who accompanies you can help remember what the doctor says.
- Write down the questions you want to be sure to ask your doctor.
Questions to ask the doctor at the initial appointment include:
- What is likely causing these symptoms?
- Are there any other possible causes for these symptoms?
- What tests are needed?
- Should a specialist be consulted?
Questions to ask if you're referred to a cardiologist include:
- Do I or does my child have coarctation of the aorta?
- How severe is the defect?
- Did tests reveal any other heart defects?
- What is the risk of complications from coarctation of the aorta?
- What treatment approach do you recommend?
- If you're recommending medications, what are the possible side effects?
- If you're recommending surgery, what type of procedure is most likely to be effective? Why?
- What will be involved in recovery and rehabilitation after surgery?
- How often should my child or I be seen for follow-up exams and tests?
- What signs and symptoms should I watch for at home?
- What is the long-term outlook for this condition?
- Do you recommend any dietary or activity restrictions?
- Do you recommend taking antibiotics before dental appointments or other medical procedures?
- Is it safe for a woman with coarctation of the aorta to become pregnant?
- What is the risk that my or my child's future children will have this defect?
- Should I meet with a genetic counselor?
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time if you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
A doctor who sees you or your child for possible coarctation of the aorta might ask a number of questions.
If you're the person affected:
- What are your symptoms?
- When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
- Have your symptoms gotten worse over time?
- Do your symptoms include shortness of breath?
- Do your symptoms include headaches or dizziness?
- Do your symptoms include chest pain?
- Do your symptoms include cold feet?
- Have you had any weakness or leg cramps with exercise?
- Have you ever fainted?
- Do you have frequent nosebleeds?
- Does exercise or physical exertion make your symptoms worse?
- Have you been diagnosed with any other medical conditions?
- What medications are you currently taking, including over-the-counter and prescription drugs, as well as vitamins and supplements?
- Are you aware of any history of heart problems in your family?
- Do you or did you smoke? How much?
- Do you have any children?
- Are you planning to become pregnant in the future?
If your baby or child is affected:
- What are your child's symptoms?
- When did you first notice these symptoms?
- Is your child gaining weight at a normal rate?
- Does your child have any breathing problems, such as running out of breath easily or breathing rapidly?
- Does your child tire easily?
- Does your child sweat heavily?
- Does your child seem irritable?
- Do your child's symptoms include chest pain?
- Do your child's symptoms include cold feet?
- Has your child been diagnosed with any other medical conditions?
- Is your child currently taking any medications?
- Are you aware of any history of heart problems in your child's family?
- Is there a history of congenital heart defects in your child's family?