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When the blood flow in the artery is blocked by a blood clot or air bubble, it is called as an embolism. 

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In the following article, we shall learn more about embolism, its dangers as well as its treatment.


The term embolism comes from the Greek word insertion. The term is in relation to the lodging of an embolus in the artery, causing blockage of the blood flow. This embolus can be a blood clot, fat globule or an air bubble. The embolus can originate in one part of the body, circulate around the body and block a completely different artery from the point of origin. An embolus is different from thrombus, that causes clots in one part and cause blockage in the point of origin.

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If the embolus is carried to a major organ such as the heart, lung or brain, it can lead to serious consequences. These include a stroke when the blood supply to the brain is stopped and pulmonary embolism when the blood supply to the lungs is hampered. Embolism can lead to disability as well as death and therefore should not be taken lightly.

Different Types of Embolism

Embolism are of different types, based on the point of interruption of blood supply.

Air embolism

The gas bubbles that clog the arteries leading to stoppage of blood supply is called as air embolism. This type is very common in SCUBA divers who dive deep under water.

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Amniotic embolism

A serious condition where the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus during pregnancy or fetal hair, cells and other debris, enters the mother’s blood stream. This can lead to an allergic reaction that causes heart and lung collapse as well as coagulopathy. It requires immediate medical attention and a cesarean section is called for to prevent fetal distress and death.

Brain Embolism

The blood clot that enters the brain and prevents blood flow is called as brain embolism. This can lead to an ischemic stroke.

Fat embolism

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When fat droplets break free and enter the blood stream, they lead to blockage. Fat embolism is mostly seen in patients who have suffered from a bone fracture or have undergone certain surgeries.


When a blood clot breaks free and forms an embolus, to reach the heart and cause blockage of blood supply. This leads to a sudden heart attack.

Foreign body embolism

When any small foreign object enters the circulatory system and blocks the blood flow, it is called as a foreign body embolism. This too is a very serious condition with fatal consequences, if not detected and treated soon.

Symptoms of Embolism

The symptoms of embolism vary depending on the size, type and location of the embolism. When one suffers from brain embolism that suffer from:

  • Weakness in one side of the body
  • Tingling sensation on side of the body
  • Confusion
  • Problems with speech, such as slurring
  • Balancing problems and vertigo
  • Double vision
  • Severe headache
  • Fainting

Those who suffer from thromboembolism develop heart attack. Pulmonary embolism causes:

  • Chest pain
  • Labored breathing
  • Coughing spells with sputum
  • Low-grade fever
  • Fluid buildup in lungs
  • Bluish tinge to the skin (cyanosis)
  • Fainting spells

Air embolism leads to:

Cholesterol and air embolism also leads to cyanosis. Embolism in other parts of the body, organs or extremities can lead to:

  • Pain in that region
  • Numbness
  • Tingling and coldness
  • Increased skin sensitivity
  • Muscle spasms
  • Paralysis
  • Tissue death that causes gangrene

What Causes Embolism?

There are different substances, objects or body tissues that can cause an embolism. These include:

  • Blood clots
  • Fat particles that break free due to fracture of the leg bone, severe burn injury or as a part of the complications of a bone surgery.
  • Gas bubbles that enter the blood stream lead to embolisms
  • Cholesterol that breaks away from a blood vessel leads to embolism

Who are at Risk of Developing Embolism?


People who are at greater risk of developing embolism include:

  • People who are over 60 years and above
  • Chronic smokers
  • People with heart disease
  • Those who are paralyzed or immobile due to bed rest for a long period
  • Pregnant women
  • Overweight or obesity can lead to fat embolism

Diagnosis of Embolism

Diagnosis of embolism depends on the suspicion of the symptoms that may indicate embolism. The common tests for detection of embolism include:

Treatment for Embolism

Treatment depends on the size, nature and location of the blockage. The main aim is to allow the circulation to continue and help the patient breathe. Medications that help dissolve clots like warfarin, heparin, low-dose aspirin are given. Air embolism is treated by keeping the patient in a hyperbaric chamber. In some cases, a surgical process called embolectomy is carried out to remove the obstruction.

Prevention of Embolism

Embolism can be prevented in high risk patients by giving the, antithrombotic drugs like heparin. They can be asked to use gradient elastic stockings as well as intermittent pneumatic compression of the legs.

Embolism can lead to paralysis, amputation of a limp and even death. Thus, it is very important to visit a hospital the minute one observes signs of stroke or heart attack. The timely diagnosis and treatment can help save a life.

Written by: Saptakee sengupta Date last updated: March 18, 2015

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