What Is an Arterial Embolism?

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  • Written By: B. Chisholm
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 October 2018
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An arterial embolism is a clot in an artery, which are the blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood from the heart to all the organs of the body. By blocking this blood flow, oxygen cannot reach the tissues, which may cause damage or death of that tissue. They most commonly occur in the legs and feet but may occur in the heart, causing a heart attack or stroke, causing damage to other organs. An arterial embolism is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical intervention.

Blood clots may occur in the arteries for many reasons including atherosclerosis, or build up of plaque in the blood vessels. This plaque may break off and cause a blockage. Cardiac conditions such as mitral stenosis, where the valve separating the lower and upper left valve of the heart doesn't work properly, and atrial fibrillation, a rhythm disorder, also increase the risk of developing an arterial embolism.

When an arterial embolism occurs, symptoms may develop quickly or over a longer period of time. They may include numbness or a feeling of cold in the affected limb, pallor of the skin in the area or muscle pains and tingling. Should any of these symptoms be experienced, urgent medical help should be sought as earlier intervention improves outcome. The tissue at the arterial embolism receives no blood or oxygen so the longer it is left, the worse the damage to the tissue. If left too long, the tissue may die completely.


Treatment depends on which organ or area of the body is involved and may include drugs and/or surgery. Anticoagulation medicine, such as heparin, enoxaparin or warfarin, and anticoagulant drugs like aspirin and clopidogrel are used to thin the blood and allow it to flow more freely. Thrombolytic drugs, such as streptokinase, may be used to dissolve the clot, especially if it has resulted in a myocardial infarction, or heart attack.

Various diagnostic procedures may be done, including blood tests and imaging scans, such as angiography and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to establish the site and severity of the arterial embolism and damage it has caused. If necessary, surgery may be performed, such as a bypass or insertion of a balloon catheter to open up the affected blood vessel. In some cases the clot may need to be surgically removed.

Risk factors, other than the cardiac conditions discussed above, also include a sedentary lifestyle without exercise, prolonged bed rest, obesity and smoking. High cholesterol increases the risk of build-up of plaque in the blood vessels. A low-stress lifestyle including healthy diet, sufficient exercise and stopping smoking can reduce the risk of arterial embolism significantly.



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