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Coarctation of the Aorta

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We know that when your child has a heart condition it can be scary for you and your child. You can relax knowing that physicians at Children’s Health are world-class subspecialists from UT Southwestern with expertise in diagnosing and treating rare congenital heart defects, such as coarctation of the aorta.

Coarctation of the aorta happens when the major blood vessel responsible for carrying oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the body (aorta) narrows.

This narrowing can occur anywhere along the aorta causing several problems:

  • Blood flow to the heart backs up, making the heart muscles work harder to pump it out
  • An abnormal thickening of the heart forms, which can eventually weaken the muscles and lead to heart failure
  • The amount of oxygen-rich blood traveling to the lower part of the body decreases

Children with coarctation of the aorta often have other congenital heart defects, such as a bicuspid aortic valve.

Symptoms

Symptoms of Coarctation of the Aorta

The degree of narrowing in your child’s aorta affects the severity of their symptoms and how early in life they appear:

  • Children with a lot of narrowing show symptoms earlier in life, usually as a baby
  • Children with mild narrowing may not experience symptoms until later in childhood or adolescence

Symptoms in babies may include:

  • Heart murmur
  • Irritability
  • Pale skin
  • Sweating
  • Heavy or rapid breathing
  • Poor feeding
  • Poor weight gain
  • Cold feet or legs
  • Weak pulse in feet
  • Blood pressure in the arms that is much greater than blood pressure in the legs

Symptoms in older children and adolescents may include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart murmur
  • Headaches
  • Cramping in the lower body
Tests and Diagnosis

Diagnosing Coarctation of the Aorta 

When your child is sick, you want answers fast. At Children’s Health, we offer all the care your child needs right in one place. We start with a comprehensive exam, which may include one or more diagnostic tests.

Your child’s evaluation may include:

  • Questions about growth, development, family history and any recent illnesses
  • Listening to the heart and lungs
  • Observing symptoms
  • Taking your child’s pulse in the legs, groin, arm and neck

Diagnostic testing may include:

  • Chest X-ray
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Echocardiogram
  • Cardiac catheterization
  • MRI
  • Pulse oximetry screening (in newborns)

We conduct testing in dedicated cardiac diagnostic labs. Children’s Health uses the best available imaging technologies to quickly and accurately diagnose all forms of heart disease. We also offer special features to help your child feel safe and comfortable during testing.  Learn more about cardiac imaging at Children’s Health.

Treatments

Treating Coarctation of the Aorta

Treatments for coarctation of the aorta include procedures to repair the narrowed vessel. Your child’s cardiologist will let you know which option is best for your child:

  • Cardiac catheterization (non-surgical): Uses catheters (thin, spaghetti-like tubes) to reach your child’s heart and widen narrowed vessels by inflating a special balloon. This balloon stretches the vessel open. A small device called a stent may help keep the vessel open.
  • Surgical repair: During open-heart surgery, doctors repair the narrowed vessel by either surgically removing the defective portion or making it larger with the help of a special patch.

We deliver these treatments in special procedure rooms dedicated exclusively to Heart Center patients. These rooms offer some of the most sophisticated technology available including the Siemens Artis Q.zen angiography system, helping us deliver treatments safely and accurately. Learn more about our cardiothoracic surgery and cardiac catheterization programs.

FAQs

Coarctation of the Aorta FAQs

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

What is coarctation?

Coarctation happens when a child’s aorta is too narrow to do its job effectively. This narrowing can occur anywhere along the aorta and can take place in many forms.

How common is coarctation of the aorta?

Coarctation of the aorta is rare form congenital heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, it affects only 4 out of every 10,000 babies.

Will my child be able to play sports?

With corrective surgery, your child should be healthy enough for physical activity, although some children may have restrictions around certain activities such as weight lifting.

My child didn’t start experiencing symptoms until adolescence. What may have caused this?

As a congenital heart condition, your child is born with coarctation. Children with mild narrowing often do not experience symptoms at first. Over time, the narrowing backs up blood flow that eventually leads to more severe symptoms.

Why does my child have different blood pressure levels in his or her arms and legs?

Blood pressure is higher at points in the body before the narrowing (such as the arms) because these areas are receiving proper blood flow. Because the narrowing restricts blood flow, points below the coarctation, usually the legs, will have a lower blood pressure. 

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