Coarctation of the aorta
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Coarctation of the aorta

Coarctation of the aorta, or aortic coarctation, is a congenital condition whereby the aorta narrows in the area where the ductus arteriosus (ligamentum arteriosum after regression) inserts. Aortic coarctation is considered when a section of the aorta is narrowed to an abnormal width. The word “coarctation” means narrowing. Coarctations are most common where the aorta — the major artery leading away from the heart — arches toward the abdomen and legs. The aortic arch may be small in babies with coarctations. Other cardiac defects may also occur when coarctation is present, typically occurring on the left side of the heart. When a patient has a coarctation, the left ventricle has to work harder. Since the aorta is narrowed, the left ventricle must generate a much higher pressure than normal in order to force enough blood through the aorta to deliver blood to the lower part of the body. If the narrowing is severe enough, the left ventricle may not be strong enough to push blood through the coarctation, thus resulting in lack of blood to the lower half of the body. Physiologically its complete form is manifested as Interrupted aortic arch.


There are three types:

  1. Preductal coarctation: The narrowing is proximal to the ductus arteriosus. Blood flow to the aorta that is distal to the narrowing is dependent on the ductus arteriosus; therefore severe coarctation can be life-threatening. Preductal coarctation results when an intracardiac anomaly during fetal life decreases blood flow through the left side of the heart, leading to hypoplastic development of the aorta. This is the type seen in approximately 5% of infants with Turner Syndrome.
  2. Ductal coarctation: The narrowing occurs at the insertion of the ductus arteriosus. This kind usually appears when the ductus arteriosus closes.
  3. Postductal coarctation: The narrowing is distal to the insertion of the ductus arteriosus. Even with an open ductus arteriosus, blood flow to the lower body can be impaired. This type is most common in adults. It is associated with notching of the ribs (because of collateral circulation), hypertension in the upper extremities, and weak pulses in the lower extremities. Postductal coarctation is most likely the result of the extension of a muscular artery (ductus arteriosus) into an elastic artery (aorta) during fetal life, where the contraction and fibrosis of the ductus arteriosus upon birth subsequently narrows the aortic lumen.

Signs and symptoms
In mild cases, children may show no signs or symptoms at first and their condition may not be diagnosed until later in life. Some children born with coarctation of the aorta have other heart defects, too, such as aortic stenosis, ventricular septal defect, patent ductus arteriosus or mitral valve abnormalities.

Coarctation is about twice as common in boys as it is in girls. It is common in girls who have Turner syndrome.

Symptoms may be absent with mild narrowings (coarctation). When present, they include: difficulty breathing, poor appetite or trouble feeding, failure to thrive. Later on, children may develop symptoms related to problems with blood flow and an enlarged heart. They may experience dizziness or shortness of breath, faint or near-fainting episodes, chest pain, abnormal tiredness or fatigue, headaches, or nosebleeds. They have cold legs and feet or have pain in their legs with exercise (intermittent claudication).

In more severe cases, where severe coarctations, babies may develop serious problems soon after birth because not enough blood can get through the aorta to the rest of their body. Arterial hypertension in the arms with low blood pressure in the lower extremities is classic.In the lower extremities,weak pulses in the femoral arteries and arteries of the feet are found.

The coarctation typically occurs after the left subclavian artery. However, if situated before it, blood flow to the left arm is compromised and asynchronous or radial pulses of different "strength" may be detected (normal on the right arm, weak or delayed on the left). In these cases, a difference between the normal radial pulse in the right arm and the delayed femoral pulse in the legs (either side) may be apparent, whilst no such delay would be appreciated with palpation of both delayed left arm and either femoral pulses. On the other hand, a coarctation occurring after the left subclavian artery will produce synchronous radial pulses, but radial-femoral delay will be present under palpation in either arm (both arm pulses are normal compared to the delayed leg pulses).


Therapy/Treatment is conservative if asymptomatic, but may require surgical resection of the narrow segment if there is arterial hypertension. The first operations to treat coarctation were carried out by Clarence Crafoord in Sweden in 1944. In some cases angioplasty can be performed to dilate the narrowed artery. If the coarctation is left untreated, arterial hypertension may become permanent due to irreversible changes in some organs (such as the kidney)

For fetuses at high risk for developing coarctation, a novel experimental treatment approach is being investigated, wherein the mother inhales 45% oxygen three times a day (3 x 3–4 hours) beyond 34 weeks of gestation. The oxygen is transferred via the placenta to the fetus and results in dilatation of the fetal lung vessels. As a consequence, the flow of blood through the fetal circulatory system increases, including that through the underdeveloped arch. In suitable fetuses, marked increases in aortic arch dimensions have been observed over treatment periods of about two to three weeks. Complications of this treatment include left ventricular failure, aortic dissection, cerebral hemorrhage and progressive aortic regurgitation or stenosis.

The long term outcome is very good. Some patient may, however, develop narrowing (stenosis) or dilatation at the previous coarctation site. All patients with unrepaired or repaired aortic coarctation require follow up in specialized Congenital Heart Disease centers.

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