Deep Vein Thrombosis Complications Pulmonary Embolism

An embolism can arise from a variety of causes and can present itself in many forms Embolisms occur when a particle, such as a piece of tissue, blood clot or air bubble, blocks blood flow in a blood vessel. This blockage can cause a stroke, heart attack or even death. While some embolisms feature symptoms such as headaches or dizziness, others are asymptomatic, meaning they have no symptoms.

Anatomy of an Embolism

Within our bodies, a massive network of veins and arteries keeps our blood flowing, all the way from our fingers and toes to our lungs, brain and heart. An embolism can occur anywhere along this network.

Simply defined, an embolism is a substance that travels from one location to another, eventually causing an obstruction of blood flow. An embolism can occur in the veins, which return oxygen-depleted blood to the heart, or in the arteries, which carry freshly oxygenated blood from the heart to other parts of the body.

When an embolism lodges itself within the circulatory system, it usually gets caught up in the medium-sized and larger blood vessels, which often makes this condition life threatening. At the least, an embolism will stop the flow of oxygen-rich blood, causing potentially permanent damage.

Types of Embolisms

Generally speaking, the location or cause of blockage identifies the type of embolism from which a person suffers. For instance, a pulmonary embolism is a blockage in the pulmonary artery. On the other hand, a cholesterol embolism occurs when loose plaque consisting of cholesterol creates an obstruction. By far, blood clots are the foremost cause of embolisms.

Here’s some information on the types of embolisms:

  • Arterial Embolism: This is a blockage of an artery and can affect several areas of the body, including the:
    • brain
    • groin
    • intestines
    • kidneys
    • knees
    • thighs.

Arterial embolisms are often formed when clots travel to and lodge in a major junction. When they reach the brain, a stroke occurs. At the extremities, immediate care is essential to prevent gangrene or amputation.

  • Gas Embolism: This term encompasses gases and air bubbles that enter the bloodstream. An air embolism can occur when a SCUBA diver rises too quickly to the surface of the water. In these cases, the embolism is the result of a rapid pressure change. Air travel and other environmental changes can also cause gas embolisms.
  • Pulmonary Embolism: Most blockages in the pulmonary artery are a result of a condition called deep vein thrombosis. These are clots that break free from leg or groin veins and travel toward the lungs.

Embolism Risk Factors

Several risk factors can trigger the development of embolisms. One such risk factor includes pregnancy, during which amniotic fluid can exit a damaged placenta and travel through the uterine veins.

Some medical treatments can contribute to the development of some embolisms. An angioplasty, for instance, can loosen plaque and cause tiny cholesterol-based elements to form embolisms. Any surgery that requires immobility also leaves a patient at risk for forming clots in the legs.

Other health factors are another risk factors associated with embolisms. These include injury, congenital abnormalities and heart defects, such as mitral valve disease. Seniors, those with HIV and the obese are also potential candidates for embolisms.

Symptoms of an Embolism

The location and size of an embolism will bring about a variety of symptoms. The type of blockage (e.g., gas, fat, cholesterol, etc.) and the patient’s health will contribute to certain physical changes.

When an embolism occurs in the brain, an individual may experience a TIA (transient ischemic attack) or a stroke. Common symptoms include:

  • difficulty with speech
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • numbness
  • pronounced mental confusion
  • tingling in certain locations
  • vision impairment.

A pulmonary embolism may also produce specific symptoms, including:

  • chest pain
  • fainting
  • heavy breathing
  • racing heartbeat
  • unexplained coughing.

The following signs may indicate embolisms in other parts of the body:

  • blood in sputum
  • bluish skin tone
  • drop in blood pressure
  • fever
  • rash
  • swollen legs.

Embolism Treatment and Prognosis

Treatment for embolisms will vary based on the location of the embolism, the type of the embolism and the patient’s medical history. In the case of blood clots, emergency and ongoing treatment may include administering anticoagulants to thin the blood. Clot-busting medications, called thrombolytic drugs, and surgery are also options.

Several tests exist to determine an embolism’s severity and type. These include ultrasound, X-rays and scans. In the presence of a pulmonary embolism, standard testing can include:

  • arterial blood gas measurement
  • electrocardiography
  • pulmonary angiography
  • venography.

Any embolism is critical. In a small percentage of sufferers, death can be quite sudden. A fast diagnosis and early treatment is essential to prevent complications and possible fatality.

Resources

Healthatoz.com (nd). Embolism. Retrieved June 21, 2007, from the Health A to Z Web site: http://www.healthatoz.com/healthatoz/Atoz/common/standard/transform.jsp?requestURI=/healthatoz/Atoz/ency/embolism.jsp.

iVillage (nd). Embolism. Retrieved June 21, 2007, from the iVillage Web site: http://heart.health.ivillage.com/bloodclot/embolism.cfm.

MedlinePlus (nd). Pulmonary Embolism. Retrieved June 21, 2007, from the MedlinePlus Web site: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/pulmonaryembolism.html.