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The Dangers Of Embolisms Explained

Updated on April 5, 2013
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Embolisms explained

As with many words in medical terminology, embolism comes from the Greek language, from the word embolus - which means a plug or a stopper.

Here are a couple of definitions about embolus and embolism:


  • "Embolism - a condition where an object called an embolus is created in one part of the body, circulates throughout the body, and then blocks blood flowing through a vessel in another part of the body." From - MNT (Medical News Today)
  • "An embolus is any foreign body - object or substance - that shouldn't be present in your blood. Foreign bodies that cause embolisms are known as emboli - a single emboli is called an embolus." From - NHS UK

In order to make things clear - an embolus is an object or substance that is travelling in your blood. When it does become lodged in a blood vessel, then the resulting blockage is referred to as an embolism.

Embolisms can take many forms and caused by various circumstances, so let's have a look at these now.

The human heart, lungs and brain can all be vulnerable to embolisms.
The human heart, lungs and brain can all be vulnerable to embolisms. | Source

Types of emboli and embolisms

We'll now look at the various types of emboli and embolism that can develop within the body:

Main types of embolus

There are several main forms that an embolus can take:

  • Air
  • Fat
  • Blood
  • Bacteria
  • Cholesterol

Each of these can then cause a different kind of embolism to occur.

  • Air - the most common people to suffer from an air embolism are scuba divers, if they run out of air or surface too quickly. Other causes are rare but include air being introduced through an intravenous infusion (drip) in hospital, and also during some forms of surgery. The air embolism or bubble often travels to the lungs where they become trapped in the small air sacs so causing an embolism. Embolisms that occur in the lungs are called pulmonary embolisms - this condition is one of the most frequent types of embolism and can be fatal.
  • Fat - the main cause of a fat embolus entering the blood stream is when long bones fracture - such as the thigh bone (femur) - or having an operation carried out on the long bones. The reason for this is that fat deposits from inside these bones might be released into the blood stream after injury. In addition, people who have severe burns can also be at risk of fatty deposits from damaged skin entering the blood stream.
  • Blood - the blood has to contain natural clotting devices in order to prevent excessive bleeding from a cut for example. However, when people are over weight or have certain medical conditions such as heart disease, then the blood can form clots in blood vessels that are damaged. Part or all of the clot may break away and begin to travel in the blood stream, where it can be become lodged in various areas so causing an embolism. In some forms of cancer, there is also a risk of blood clots forming in the blood vessels.
  • Bacteria - when there is a severe infection in the body by bacteria, they can form a plug that may block a vessel. In addition, parts of this bacterial plug can break off, travel in the blood stream and cause an embolism somewhere in the body.
  • Cholesterol - the people who are most at risk from this type of embolus are those who have developed severe atherosclerosis. This is a narrowing of blood vessels due to the build up of cholesterol particles. Sometimes these particles can break off and lead to an embolism elsewhere in the body.

Let's now look at what happens when the embolus does get trapped in specific areas of the body.

The brain where embolisms can occur - usually called a stroke.
The brain where embolisms can occur - usually called a stroke. | Source

The types of embolism that can develop

When the embolus travels in the blood stream there is always a danger that it will become lodged in an area of the body where the blood vessels are particularly small. Depending on where they block blood vessels they will come under a specific medical term. The main forms of embolism are:

  • Pulmonary
  • Cerebral
  • Arterial


There are others, but we'll concentrate on the most common forms.


Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism happens when an embolus lodges in the lungs. Many people who suffer from a pulmonary embolism had developed a blood clot in one of the large veins in the leg, known as a DVT - deep vein thrombosis. When a piece of this deep vein blood clot breaks off, it is common for it to travel in the blood stream, then getting trapped in the tiny air sacs of the lungs. However, other types of embolus can also get lodged in the lungs in the same way.


Cerebral Embolism

Once again the majority of embolisms in the cerebral (brain) area are caused by blood clots. Cerebral embolism is one of the major causes of stroke. However, the other types of emboli can also cause an embolism in the brain.


Arterial Embolism

Even in the arteries where blood is fast flowing, emboli can form - usually when the artery is diseased or in some way damaged. In particular, people with atherosclerosis have pieces of plaque from inside of the vessel breaking away, causing an embolism elsewhere. In addition, because with atherosclerosis the blood vessels are more constricted, it is much easier for pieces of blood clot or other forms of emboli from somewhere else in the body to cause an embolism within the artery itself. This is a serious and potentially life threatening situation.


The main risk factors for developing emboli that may then cause an embolism are:

  • Smoking - which constricts blood vessels that can allow an embolus to become lodged
  • Over weight - especially clinical obesity. Excess weight puts a strain on the heart and circulatory system that may cause damage to the vessels, so increasing the risk of clots etc. In addition, being over weight can lead to other medical conditions that make the risk of developing an embolism even higher.
  • Other medical conditions - such as, deep vein thrombosis, diabetes, heart disease and many others.
  • Having a surgical operation on the hip or legs can increase the chances of a deep vein thrombosis and other types of clot forming. This may lead to an embolism elsewhere in the body.
  • Pregnancy - due to the weight of the baby and general body changes, some women can be at slightly more risk of developing an embolism.
  • Age - over the age of 40 people are at higher risk of developing an embolism.
  • If a person has had previous blood clots or there is a family history, then this can increase the chances of an embolism forming.

These are some of the main risk factors and I hope the article in general has been useful to you.

If you have any concerns about your health in relation to embolisms or any other condition, then speak to your doctor.


This article is for information only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

Comments

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  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rosemay, hope your having a lovely weekend!

    Many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. I've known a couple of people who had pulmonary embolisms - unfortunately one of them died. She had a clot in her lower leg and a part of it had broken off and went into her lung. At the end what shocked her family was how quick it went from her doing quite well to things turning around into a tradgedy.

    Thankfully the guy that I knew did survive and like your friend is on aspirin daily even although it was few years ago. It's frightening stuff but I always think a bit of knowledge never does any harm.

  • Rosemay50 profile image

    Rosemary Sadler 

    5 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

    Hi Helen, again you have given us a world of information on this topic that really could affect any of us at any time. I didn't know that embolisms could be caused by fat or bacteria so that is well worth knowing. Thank you for this info

    I know someone who had a pulmonary embolism and had to take warfarin for a while and now has to take asprin daily as a blood thinner.

    Excellent and very useful. Voting Up and sharing.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi teaches12345, always lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub. I agree, I wish it was something that we didn't have to worry about, but I guess having the knowledge and awareness does give a level of protection.comes into play with health issues like these.

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    5 years ago

    A very nicely done hub post and well researched. I only wish it was something none of us needed to deal with in reality. Still, being informed is the best prevention.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi point2make,

    Many thanks for stopping by and for such a positive comment - the vote up and share are also greatly appreciated - thank you!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi rasta1, lovely to hear from you and gald that you enjoyed the hub.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi john000,

    Many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. Yes, the blood thinning medication seems to be one of the best preventions against an emboli or embolism happening again. The thing is, they can strike without warning with some people and it's very frightening for them and their family. So yes, she does need to be careful as her risk factor does go up if she has had a previous embolism, but if she takes care, there's no reason why she can't have a good, active life.

    Thanks again for stopping by and for the vote and share - greatly appreciated.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Nell, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub.

    Yes the bacteria is a strange one, and to be honest I can't recall having had a patient with this type of embolism when I was nursing, but I think it is quite rare.

    Oh your poor husband and the dreaded warfarin!!! Did he have to have the painful injections into the abdomen? I got those when I had my gall bladder out - the reason being I was a smoker and obviously you are at much higher risk than some people. And those damned injections were nippy!!!

    As with your husband, during surgery this can occur quite often, and thankfully he was in hospital at the time as you say. I've known folks being discharged, only to be re-admitted with a deep vein thrombosis or worse, if this has turned into an embolism in the lungs. So yes, getting any kind of embolism, anywhere is a 'nightmare'.

    Many thanks for the vote up and share - greatly appreciated.

  • point2make profile image

    point2make 

    5 years ago

    Thank-you for this very important and timely information. This is a very serious subject and your hub offers some much needed knowledge to all of us....thanks again. voted up and shared.

  • rasta1 profile image

    Marvin Parke 

    5 years ago from Jamaica

    I learned something new. Thanks for the detailed information.

  • john000 profile image

    John R Wilsdon 

    5 years ago from Superior, Arizona

    A thorough review of emboli. Lots of good information. My neighbor across the street recently was on blood thinners for the very same thing.

    She is ok, but has to be careful. Voted up. Thanks.

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 

    5 years ago from England

    Hi Seeker, I never knew about the bacteria one, but my ex husband had a blood clot after major surgery on his stomach, that was a nightmare, luckily he was in hospital at the time, but he had to take warfarin for quite some time, great explanation, and voted up and shared! nell

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rasma, many thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the hub!

  • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

    Gypsy Rose Lee 

    5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

    Thank you for sharing this very interesting and informative hub. The information is very useful. Passing this on.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Tom, lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub - thank you for the vote up as well, greatly appreciated!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi AliciaC, lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi ananceleste, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. Thanks also for the vote up - its greatly appreciated!!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Nettlemere, lovely to hear from you - hope your having a nice Easter!

    Glad that you found the hub informative and yes, unfortunately there are a number of things that can lead to embolisms.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Frank, lovely to hear from you and glad you enjoyed the hub!

  • kashmir56 profile image

    Thomas Silvia 

    5 years ago from Massachusetts

    Hi Helen, this is a very interesting and informative article with all good and useful information within it . Well done !

    Vote up and more !!!

    Hope you are also enjoying a wonderful Easter Sunday !

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 

    5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

    Thank you for sharing this very useful information, Seeker7. All the details that you have included are very informative!

  • ananceleste profile image

    Anan Celeste 

    5 years ago from California

    Great informative Hub. The silent killer. Everyone has to read this information. To know is half the battle. Voted up!

  • Nettlemere profile image

    Nettlemere 

    5 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

    very informative - I had no idea that such a variety of things could cause an embolism.

  • Frank Atanacio profile image

    Frank Atanacio 

    5 years ago from Shelton

    very informative, direct, and made to lay's terms... voted useful

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