International Journal of Clinical Medicine, 2011, 2, 463-468
doi:10.4236/ijcm.2011.24078 Published Online September 2011 (
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. IJCM
Ongoing Blood Pressure Change in Both Upper
Extremities: An Unusual Presentation of Aortic
Hung Yi Chen
Department of Cardiology, Taipei City Hospital-Heping Branch, Chinese Taipei.
Received May11st, 2011; revised June 29th, 2011; accepted July 30th, 2011.
Aortic dissection is a critical condition requiring immediate assessment and management. Patients with this condition
usually present with severe chest pain and high blood pressure. However, because of the variety of presenting symp-
toms and features, it is a challenge to identify th is condition, and patients are frequently misdiagnosed. The potentially
critical course of aortic dissectio n can resu lt in tragedy. We p resent the case of a 46-year-old woman who initia lly pre-
sented with a light headache and sensory loss in her right upper limb. She had a medical history of hypertension with-
out regular medication, and her blood pressure (BP) was 110/67 mmHg on arrival. Four days later, she was sent to the
emergency department again because she experienced transient loss of consciousness lasting for a few minutes. Her BP
was 94/57 mmHg in the right arm and 89/54 in the left arm. She was admitted to the hospital, and the pulses in both
upper limbs were impalpable on the following day. Chest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was arranged, and sub-
sequently, aortic dissection was diagnosed. The case presented with unusual characteristics, which increased th e diffi-
culty in immediate correct diagnosis.
Keywords: Aortic Dissection, Blood Press ur e , Pulseless Upper Extremities
1. Introduction
Aortic dissection is a potential fatal condition and early
diagnosis is critical to the prognosis. The management
demands either surgical repair the dissected aorta or
medical reduce arterial shear forces on the torn aortic site.
Early diagnosis with minimal loss of time is the princip le
for prompt management. However, misdiagnosis remains
an unresolved problem because of myriad and unpre-
dictable clinical presentation. Widened mediastinum in a
chest X-ray is a common finding. The initial symptoms
usually present with severe and abrupt chest pain. Physi-
cal examination helpful in diagnosis is unstable blood
pressure. Arterial hypertension is the most frequent pres-
entation. Asymmetric pulses and varying blood pressure
between different upper limbs are another indication of
possible aortic dissection. Hemodynamic instability,
shock, and syncope could be the less common manifesta-
tions in acute aortic dissection. We described a case of
acute aortic dissection presenting with progressive de-
creased blood pressure detected in bilateral upper ex-
tremities. The unusual presentations without typ ical clini-
cal findings obscured the diagnosis. The possibility of
diagnosis should be kept in mind to avoid catastrophe.
2. Case Report
A 46-year-old woman who experienced headache and
right upper limb numbness for 4 hours was admitted to
our emergency department. She denied having any chest,
back, abdominal, arm, or leg pain. She had neither syn-
cope nor dyspnea. No other symptoms were noted at this
time. She had a history of hypertension that was not
treated with regular medication. She was a non-smoker
and had no prior surgeries. No other aspect of her medi-
cal history was significant.
Physical examination revealed that the patient had a
comfortable appearance, and was mild obesity. The pa-
tient’s vital signs were as follows: blood pressure (BP),
110/67 mmHg; pulse rate, 74 beats/min; respiration rate,
18 breaths/min; body temperature, 37˚C. She was alert
and conscious of time, people, and position. Cardiac
auscultation revealed no murmur, gallops, or rubs. The
lung sounds were clear during auscultation. The abdomen
Ongoing Blood Pressure Change in Both Upper Extremities: An Unusual Presentation of Aortic Dissection
was soft and non-tender with no masses during palpation.
The results of other physical and neurological examina-
tions were unremark able. Chest radiography showed car-
diomegaly but no other significant findings. The results
of electrocardiography were unremarkable. A brain
computer tomography (CT) scan was performed, but the
result showed no abnormalities. Th e results of laboratory
tests, including a complete blood count and cardiac en-
zyme, glucose, electrolyte, and renal function tests were
normal. After consultation with a neuro logist, a d iagno sis
of cerebrovascular disease was ruled out. The pa tient was
initially recommended treatment for a tension migraine.
After that, she was prescribed a medication and under-
went follow-up at the outpatient department after obser-
Four days later, she was admitted to our emergency
department again because of loss of consciousness. The
episode lasted for 5 minutes in the early morning and
culminated with spontaneous and full recovery. After
recovering clear consciousness, the patient complained of
dizziness and felt faint. At the second examination, her
BP was 94/57 mmHg in the right arm and 89/54 in the
left arm. Her pulse rate was 106 beats/min, respiratory
rate was 20/min, and body temperature was 37˚C. Car-
diac, respiratory, abdominal, and neurological examina-
tions did not reveal further abnormalities, except for
sensory loss in the right upper limb. There were no sig-
nificant changes in her chest radiographs and electrocar-
diographs in comparison with the previous findings. She
was again recommended for admission to the inpatient
On the following day, her BP was difficult to detect in
the upper arms and both radial arteries were impalpable.
When measured in the lower limbs, her blood pressure
was 190/95 mmHg in the right leg and 198/98 mmHg in
the left leg. The patient did not report any further com-
plaints, and the sensation of numbness in her right upper
limb improved. There was neither further syncope nor
development of other neurological defects. The patient
stated that she was now feeling fine.
Subsequently, sonography and Doppler scan of her
upper extremities were performed under the impression
of peripheral vascular obstruction. The results showed
bilateral patent radial arteries with normal compressibil-
ity. Carotid Doppler was performed, and it revealed in-
creased intimal thickness without marked plaque forma-
tion. In addition, both subclavian arteries were invisible,
the left common carotid artery was co mpletely occluded,
and inverted flow was noted in the left external carotid
artery. Echocardiography showed good left ventricle
contractility. Neither pericardial effusion nor significant
valvular regurgitation was found. Under the impression
of aortoarteritis, chest magnetic reson ance imaging (MRI)
was performed. The results showed aortic dissection with
an intimal flap from the orifice of the left common ca-
rotid artery. The left common caro tid artery and left sub-
clavian artery were almost occluded. A possible intimal
flap in the right innominate artery with high-grade steno-
sis of the right subclavian artery was also demonstrated
(Figure 1). A CT scan was arranged to evaluate the ab-
dominal aorta for surgical management, and the results
showed similar findings. It showed aortic dissectio n fro m
the transverse site, and the dissection extended to the
level of the celiac trunk. There was an intimal flap in the
right innominate artery and a small amount of dense fluid
collected in the pericardial space (Figure 2). The disease
was in progression, and the patient received surgical in-
tervention on the following day. After confirmed the di-
agnosis, surgical repair with aortic aneurysmectomy was
performed and a synthetic graft was interposed between
aortic root and aortic arch. Another two grafts between
ascending aorta graft to right brachiocephalic artery and
to left common carotid artery were placed. Then the
other graft was interposed between ascending aorta and
distal aortic arch. Valvuloplasty with aortic annulus pla-
cation was performed finally. And the patient was dis-
charged after ascending aorta total repair with stable
3. Discussion
Acute aortic dissection is a potentially fatal condition
requiring immediate assessment and treatment. Immedi-
ate surgical intervention is the treatment of choice for
dissection originating in the ascending aorta, and early
diagnosis is critical to the prognosis. A cute onset of chest
pain is the most common initial presentation. Classical
symptoms include an abrupt, severely painful tearing or
ripping sensation in the chest or substernal area, which
sometimes radiates to infrascapular, mid-back, or ab-
dominal sites. However, pain may be absent or intermit-
tent in aortic dissection, and, because of the myriad and
unpredictable possible clinical presentations, misdiagno-
sis remains an unresolved problem.
The clinical presentation of th is condition may include
symptoms and signs secondary to organ system involve-
ment [1]. The presentations may be diverse and numer-
ous, including neurological, cardiovascular, and gastro-
intestinal manifestations. Neurologic symptoms are fre-
quently associated with thoracic aortic dissection, which
may be a clue to early diagnosis [2]. Although most of
the neurological symptoms are associated with chest pain,
painless aortic dissection may present with neurologic
symptoms. The common neurologic presentations in dis-
secting aortic aneurysm include acute stroke or peripheral
ischemic neuropathy. Among these, stroke is the most
common presentation. Acute stroke may develop when
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. IJCM
Ongoing Blood Pressure Change in Both Upper Extremities: An Unusual Presentation of Aortic Dissection
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. IJCM
Figure 1. Chest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed aortic aneurysm with an obvious intimal flap near the orifice of
the left common carotid artery. The left common carotid artery and left subclavian artery were almost occluded. A possible
intimal flap in the right innominate artery with high-grade stenosis of the right subclavian artery was also demonstrated.
Figure 2. Chest computer tomography (CT) demonstrated an intimal flap near the orifice of the right innominate artery,
which extended into it (arrow). The dissecting aortic aneurysm extended to the descending aorta near the celiac trunk (ar-
owhead). Pericardial effusion was also demonstrated (*). r
Ongoing Blood Pressure Change in Both Upper Extremities: An Unusual Presentation of Aortic Dissection
the aortic dissection extends to the innominate artery or
common carotid arteries. Other clinical manifestations,
such as transient cerebral hypoperfusion caused by al-
tered cerebrovascular flow, may present as syncope [3].
As for spinal cord ischemia and peripheral nerve in-
volvement, paraplegia is the most common neurologic
symptom caused by obstruction of spinal arteries; this
symptom has been described in several case reports [4-6].
Spinal cord ischemia and ischemic peripheral neuropa-
thies are more commonly associated with distal aortic
dissection. The aortic dissections in most of these cases
were located in the abdominal aorta and resulted in injury
to the lower extremities. Possible manifestation s of these
injuries include transverse myelitis, progressive myelo-
pathy, anterior spinal cord syndrome, paraplegia, and
qu ad r i p l e g i a [ 6 - 9 ] . Painless di ssecting aorta with isch emic
peripheral neuropathy in upper limbs is very rare and is
often ignored or misdiagnosed. Clinical presentations are
varied and may result in neurologic symptoms, including
paresthesia in the limbs, hoarseness of voice, and Horner
syndrome [10,11]. The possible mechanisms underlying
these symptoms include neuronal ischemia caused by
obstruction of the branch artery, compression caused by
the exp ansion of the false lume n, and leakag e of the aor-
tic dissection aneurysm.
Aortic dissection may also result in symptomatic
ischemia, which most commonly occurs in a lower ex-
tremity [12,13]. Clinicians sho uld co ns ider the possibility
of aortic dissection in patients presenting with abrupt
onset of chest pain and sudden loss of pulse in a lower
extremity. However, the symptomatic ischemia caused
by aortic dissection is not li mited to th e lower ex tremities.
One previous report described a case of acute aortic dis-
section in which the patient experienced numbness and
paleness in the right arm, which was caused by acute
occlusion of the right subclavian artery [14]. The patho-
logic mechanism in that case was similar to that in our
case, but the 2 cases had different clinical manifestations.
In our case, right arm numbness without blood pressure
differentials and without the c linical features of ischemia
obscured the initial diagnosis. The value of different
blood pressure assessed between bilateral upper extremi-
ties believed to be clinically s ignificant is greater than 10
mm Hg in systolic blood pressure [15]. Asymmetric
pulses and varying blood pressures between different
upper limbs are strong indicators of possible aortic dis-
section. Other possible condition included coarctation
aorta involving aortic arch, inflammatory aortitis as
syphilitic aortitis, arotic arch syndrome, supravalvular
aortic stenosis, and subclavian steal syndrome [16-20].
Comparing the blood pressure values in both upper ex-
tremities is important determination in the diagnosis of
pathology involving the aortic arch or upper-extremity
arteries. In fact, asymmetric blood pressures are the most
specific physical signs of aortic dissection and have been
reported in 38% of patients with aortic dissections [21].
Aortic dissection involving both subclavian arteries is
rare, and it is extremely rare when the clinical manifesta-
tion includes absent pulses in both upper extremities and
lacks neurol ogic defects.
Most patients with aortic dissection present with hy-
pertension; however, hemodynamic instability with the
clinical features of circulatory shock may also be a sign
of aortic dissection. Hypotension and shock in acute aor-
tic dissection are secondary to acute severe aortic regur-
gitation, low cardiac output because of cardiac tampo-
nade, aortic rupture, or left ventricular systolic dysfunc-
tion with coronary artery involvement [22,23]. Echocar-
diography did not reveal any special condition in our
case, and this obscured the diagnosis. Fortunately, the
true diagnosis was confirmed by MRI, and a prompt sur-
gical intervention was arranged without any problems.
Emergent surgical repair is indicated to avoid life-
threatening events when aortic dissection involving as-
cending aorta. The standard operation for type A dissec-
tion is to perform an ascending aortic replacement with
open distal hemi-arch anastomosis. Residual aortic an-
eurysm with gradually enlargement in patients who had
previously undergone ascending aortic repair had been
noted [24,25]. Using an open total arch/elephant-trunk
approach or hybrid endovascular approaches provide a
method to compress the false lumen in distal descending
thoracic aorta [26]. Preliminary showed hybrid arch pro-
cedures have benefit in elderly and high risk patients, but,
this benefit is not as pronounced in younger [27-29].
Further outcome data will be necessary in the future. In
our case, after the surgical procedure, she was discharged
under stable condition and kept follow-up at out-patient
4. Conclusions
The case demonstrated the uncommon clinical evolution
of aortic dissection. The most distal intimal tear in a dis-
secting aortic aneurysm where the blood is presumed to
return to the circulation (reentry tears) or multiple intimal
tears without interarms blood pressure differences may
occur in the cases of aortic dissection. Knowledge of the
clinical manifestations and the possible involvement of
aortic arch vessels are the critical factors in diagnosis.
Early blood pressure measurement of other extremities
and image study are indicated to assist the diagnosis of
this condition.
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