Arterial embolism is a sudden interruption of blood flow to an organ or body part due to a clot (embolus).
An embolus is a blood clot or a piece of plaque that acts like a clot. Emboli means there is more than one clot or piece of plaque. When the clot travels from the site where it formed to another location in the body, it is called an embolism.
An arterial embolism may be caused by one or more clots. The clots can get stuck in an artery and block blood flow. The blockage starves tissues of blood and oxygen. This can result in damage or tissue death (necrosis).
Arterial emboli often occur in the legs and feet. Emboli that occur in the brain cause a stroke. Ones that occur in the heart cause a heart attack. Less common sites include the kidneys, intestines, and eyes.
Conditions that increase blood clotting (such as a very high platelet count)
Another condition that poses a high risk for embolization (especially to the brain) is mitral stenosis. Endocarditis (infection of the inside of the heart) can also cause arterial emboli.
A common source for an embolus is from areas of hardening (atherosclerosis) in the aorta and other large blood vessels. These clots can break loose and flow down to the legs and feet.
Paradoxical embolization can take place when a clot in a vein enters the right side of the heart and passes through a hole into the left side. The clot can then move to an artery and block blood flow to the brain (stroke) or other organs.
If a clot involves the arteries supplying blood flow to the lungs, it is called a pulmonary embolus.
You may not have any symptoms.
Symptoms may begin quickly or slowly depending on the size of the embolus and how much it blocks the blood flow.
Symptoms of an arterial embolism in the arms or legs may include:
Arterial embolism requires prompt treatment at a hospital. The goals of treatment are to control symptoms and to improve the interrupted blood flow to the affected area of the body. The cause of the clot, if found, should be treated to prevent further problems.
Anticoagulants (such as warfarin or heparin) can prevent new clots from forming
Antiplatelet medications (such as aspirin or clopidogrel) can prevent new clots from forming
Painkillers given through a vein (by IV)
Thrombolytics (such as streptokinase) can dissolve clots
Some people need surgery. Procedures include:
Bypass of the artery (arterial bypass) to create a second source of blood supply
Clot removal through a balloon catheter placed into the affected artery or through open surgery on the artery (embolectomy)
Opening of the artery with a balloon catheter (angioplasty) with or without a stent
How well a patient does depends on the location of the clot and how much the clot has blocked blood flow. Arterial embolism can be serious if not treated promptly.
The affected area can be permanently damaged. Amputation is needed in up to 1 in 4 cases.
Arterial emboli can come back even after successful treatment.
Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if you have symptoms of arterial embolism.
Prevention begins with finding the source of the blood clot. Your health care provider may prescribe blood thinners (such as warfarin or heparin) to prevent clots from forming. Antiplatelet drugs may also be needed.
You have a higher risk atherosclerosis and clots if you are:
Inactive and do little exercise
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Rooke TW, Hirsch AT, Misra S, et al. 2011 ACCF/AHA Focused Update of the Guideline for the Management of Patients With Peripheral Artery Disease (Updating the 2005 Guideline). J Am Coll Cardiol. 2011;58:2020-2045.
Sobel M, Verhaeghe R. Antithrombotic therapy for peripheral arterial occlusive disease: American College of Chest Physicians Evidence-Based Clinical Practice Guidelines (8th Edition). Chest. 2008;133(6):815S-843S.
Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.