Authored by Revere Health

What is an Embolism?

November 11, 2016 | Pulmonology

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Perhaps no other area more accurately represents the complexity of the human body than our system of blood vessels. Thousands of minuscule pipelines affected by heart rate transport vital blood to many destinations. With so little margin for error, even a tiny kink in the system can be cause for concern.

Chief among these potential concerns is a condition called an embolism. A broad category, embolisms are defined as any lodging of a blockage (known as an embolus) within a blood vessel. Embolisms are most commonly some form of blood clot, but there are cases where other objects are able to make their way into the bloodstream as well. 

Embolisms can manifest themselves in a number of ways and within many locations in the body, often in serious and potentially life-threatening manners. Let’s take a look at a few basic facts about this common blood disorder.

Risk Factors and Causes

Embolisms share many risk factors with heart disease, such as age and genetics. Smokers, people with high blood pressure and those with high-cholesterol diets are also at increased risk.

Embolisms can also form as a result of more singular occurrences, however. Tumors or fat from bone marrow can detach from their original homes and become emboli, often clogging up areas far from where they originated within the bloodstream. Pockets of air will occasionally form within blood vessels and act as emboli of their own, a slightly more common occurrence for underwater divers.

For people with pulmonary embolisms, the most common cause is a disorder known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT involves blood clots forming in the legs before often moving to other, more dangerous areas.

Types of Embolisms

Embolisms can materialize all over the body, with varying symptoms. Here are some of the most common:

  • Pulmonary embolism: Typically caused by DVT, a pulmonary embolism takes place when an embolus forms in the leg before traveling to the lungs. It can range from generally minor to immediate and life-threatening. These are sometimes classified as part of a larger sub-group called “arterial embolisms,” referencing any time an embolus sticks to the wall of an artery and interrupts blood flow to an organ.
  • Air embolism: Common in divers, air embolisms involve tiny pockets of air entering the bloodstream and forming bubbles which block blood flow. They’re fairly rare.
  • Brain embolism: When an embolism occurs in the brain. This is very dangerous and a common cause of stroke. Brain embolisms are not to be confused with a brain aneurysm, which involves a swelling of a brain artery rather than an embolus blocking flow.
  • Fat embolism: When fat particles (typically from bone) enter the bloodstream and create blockages.
  • Retinal embolism: A rare form of embolism where tiny vessels behind the eye are blocked. Can result in sudden blindness.
  • Amniotic embolism: Only present in pregnant women, these embolisms occur when amniotic fluid escapes (typically into the lungs) and becomes an embolus.
  • Septic embolism: When infection takes place in the body, it often creates junk which can occasionally hit the bloodstream and act as an embolus.



Just like their risk factors, embolisms share several symptoms with heart disease. Initial signs can include pain (commonly in the legs, chest or back), dizziness and difficulty breathing. If you experience frequent chest pain or irregular heartbeat, consult with your doctor. Anyone coughing up even tiny bits of blood should seek immediate medical attention, as this could be a warning sign for a dangerous pulmonary embolism.


One of a few different types of tests is used to confirm the presence of an embolism. These include simple tests like X-rays or CT scans, plus more detailed examinations like ventilation perfusion scans or a process called pulmonary angiography (for the lungs). This process will vary on a case-to-case basis.

Treatment and Prevention

For embolisms caused by blood clots, anticoagulants (medicines which stop blood from clotting) are the primary treatment method. They’re often used alongside another type of medication called thrombolytics, which help dissolve clots. As we noted above, specific cases of pulmonary embolism are generally tied to DVT, for which anticoagulants are commonly prescribed.

From a prevention standpoint, frequent exercise and stretching (especially in affected areas, for people already dealing with embolisms) are top of the list. Healthy habits are up there too, particularly within the realm of diet. Compression clothing can also be worn, particularly compression stockings on the legs.

Revere Health Pulmonology offers specialized treatment options for asthma, COPD, chronic cough and shortness of breath.




The Live Better Team

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.