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Arterial Embolism

Overview

An arterial embolism is a blood clot that has travelled through your arteries and become stuck. This can block or restrict blood flow. Clots generally affect the arms, legs, or feet. An embolism is anything that obstructs blood flow. The plural of embolism is emboli. A blood clot is also known as a thrombus.

A single clot can cause more than one embolism. Pieces may break free and get stuck in other parts of the body. Some emboli travel to the brain, heart, lungs, and kidneys.

When an artery is blocked, it can cause tissue damage or death in the affected area. Because of this, an arterial embolism is a medical emergency. It requires immediate treatment to prevent permanent injury.

What causes an arterial embolism?

A number of things may cause an arterial embolism. Damage to the arteries by disease or other health conditions is one major cause. High blood pressure may also increase the risk of an embolism. Having high blood pressure weakens the arterial walls, making it easier for blood to accumulate in the weakened artery and form clots.

Other common causes of blood clots include:

  • smoking
  • hardening of the arteries from high cholesterol
  • surgery that affects blood circulation
  • injuries to the arteries
  • heart disease
  • atrial fibrillation — a type of rapid and irregular heartbeat

What are the symptoms of arterial embolism?

The symptoms of this condition depend on the location of the embolism. If you have any of the follow symptoms, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.

You may notice some of the following symptoms in an arm or leg after an embolism has formed:

  • coldness
  • lack of pulse
  • lack of movement
  • tingling or numbness
  • pain or spasms in the muscles
  • pale skin
  • a feeling of weakness

These symptoms will likely be asymmetrical, appearing only on the side of your body with the embolism.

Symptoms that may occur if an embolism is not treated or worsens include:

  • ulcers (open sores)
  • an appearance of shedding skin
  • tissue death

Who is at risk for an arterial embolism?

A variety of lifestyle factors can increase your risk of developing an arterial embolism. You may be at risk if you:

  • smoke tobacco products
  • have high blood pressure
  • have had recent surgery
  • have heart disease
  • eat a diet high in cholesterol
  • have an abnormally fast heart rate
  • are obese
  • live a sedentary lifestyle
  • are of advanced age

How is an arterial embolism diagnosed?

Your doctor may check for a decrease in your pulse or heart rate, as the lack of a local pulse may indicate tissue death. Your doctor may also use diagnostic and imaging tests to locate any emboli present in your body. Common tests include:

  • angiogram — examines the blood vessels for abnormalities
  • Doppler ultrasound — watches blood flow
  • MRI — takes images of the body to locate blood clots

How is an arterial embolism treated?

Embolism treatment depends on the size and location of the clot. It can involve medication, surgery, or both. The ultimate goal is to break up the clot and restore proper circulation.

Medications

Medications used to treat arterial emboli include:

  • anticoagulants, to prevent blood clots
  • thrombolytics, to destroy existing emboli
  • intravenous pain medications

Surgery

Angioplasty may be performed to bypass a clot. It’s a technique used to open up blocked or narrowed blood vessels. A balloon catheter is inserted into an artery and guided to the clot. Once there, it’s inflated to open up the blocked vessel. A stent may be used to support the repaired walls.

How can an arterial embolism be prevented?

To help improve your blood circulation, you can:

  • avoid smoking
  • refrain from eating foods high in fats and cholesterol
  • exercise several times a week

What is the long-term outlook?

Your recovery will depend on how long you’ve had the embolism, the location of the clot, and the severity.

Many people recover successfully from emboli. However, an embolism can recur after treatment, so it’s important to be aware of your symptoms and talk to your doctor if you may have an arterial embolism. Quick treatment is key to preventing permanent damage to the affected area.


Content licensed from:

Written by: Brindles Lee Macon and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Medically reviewed on: Oct 24, 2016: Carissa Stephens, RN, CCRN, CPN

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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