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An embolism is an obstruction in a blood vessel caused by any blockage-causing material, called an embolus. The embolus is often a blood clot (also called a thrombus) but may also be a fat globule, a bubble of air or other gas, or a foreign substance. Embolisms can occur in arteries or veins and can block blood flow through the blood vessel. Embolisms usually happen because of another illness or injury, and they can cause problems both close to the blockage and in distant parts of the body.
What causes an embolism?
When an embolism blocks the normal flow of blood in a vessel, it prevents blood from getting to tissues that need it. That means that the tissues won’t get the oxygen and nutrients they need, and they are essentially starved and die.
What are the risk factors for embolism?
You are at high risk for blood clot formation and an embolism if you:
- Have high blood pressure
- Have heart disease
- Have atherosclerosis
- Have high cholesterol
- Are obese
What are the symptoms of an embolism?
The signs and symptoms of an embolism vary depending on its cause and location. It can range from an unnoticeable event that causes no symptoms to a life-threatening emergency.
Pulmonary embolism (when an embolus lodges in the arteries of the lungs) is arguably the most severe complication of embolus formation. It may cause the following:
- Shortness of breath or wheezing
- Blood in the sputum
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Chest or back pain
A thrombus in another part of the body can cause swelling around the area of the clot, as well as pain, redness, or tenderness.
The best way to prevent most causes of embolus formation is to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.
Can an embolism occur during pregnancy?
During pregnancy (and for about 3 months after delivery), women are at increased risk of blood clot formation. A woman’s body naturally clots more easily in order to prevent bleeding complications during labor and delivery. Additionally, pregnant women experience less blood flow to their lower body, and this slower blood flow can make it easier for clots to form. Inactivity, especially medically ordered bed rest, is also a risk factor that many pregnant women may face.
Surgical procedures, including C-section delivery, can also prompt blood clot formation. If you have a C-section, you will likely have compression devices placed on your legs to maintain blood flow.
In pregnancy, an embolus can also form from amniotic fluid. The embolus can travel to the lungs, becoming a pulmonary embolism, which can result in maternal death. Unfortunately, amniotic embolism cannot be prevented; treatment requires prompt attention to maintain breathing and blood flow. Amniotic embolisms usually occurring during delivery or immediately afterwards. Signs and symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Sudden decrease in blood pressure
- Bleeding from uterus, incisions, or IV sites
- Anxiety, confusion, or altered mental state
- Rapid heart rate
- Fetal distress
Can an embolism be prevented?
The best way to prevent most causes of embolus formation is to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle. If you are at high risk for blood clot formation, anticoagulant medications may prevent the formation of clots. However, these medications may not be appropriate during pregnancy. Ask your doctor how you can prevent an embolism during pregnancy.
Other techniques may be used to maintain healthy blood flow and prevent clot formation without the use of medicine:
- Compression devices or compression stockings
- Frequent stretching and massaging of the lower legs
- Not sitting for extended periods of time (for example, when you fly)
You should also quit smoking and control high blood pressure, if these are risk factors for you.
In the past 4 decades, embolism has been steadily increasing as a cause of maternal death before, during, and after pregnancy. Talk to your doctor about any changes in your body and be alert to dangerous signs that might indicate a life-threatening pulmonary embolism: prompt identification and treatment are needed to save the life of mother and baby.