What causes an embolism?

An embolism is a blockage in one of the arteries of the body due to a circulating blood clot. Blockage of an artery may restrict blood flow to a limb, the lung or another organ.

Primary cause of embolism

The primary cause of embolism is deep vein thrombosis, a condition in which blood clots form in the large veins of the lower extremities, such as in the thigh or lower leg. If the blood clot breaks free from the wall of the vein, it can travel through the bloodstream and cause an embolism by blocking an artery.

Other causes of embolism

Other causes of blood clot formation and embolism include:

  • Atherosclerosis (buildup of plaque on the walls of the coronary arteries; atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis
  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Endocarditis (inflammation of the lining and valves of the heart)
  • Mitral stenosis

What are the risk factors for embolism?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing an embolism. Not all people with risk factors will get an embolism. Risk factors for an embolism include:

  • Abnormal vascular anatomy (inferior vena cava anomalies)
  • Advanced age
  • Atrial fibrillation 
  • Cancer
  • Central venous catheters 
  • Deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in the leg that can break loose from the leg and cause a pulmonary embolism in the lung, a heart attack, or stroke)
  • Diabetes
  • Hypercholesterolemia
  • Hypercoagulable states (anticoagulant deficiency)
  • Long periods of immobility, such as bed rest or prolonged air travel
  • Obesity
  • Oral contraceptives or hormone therapy
  • Pregnancy
  • Previous heart attack, embolism, or stroke
  • Recent hospitalization (any cause)
  • Recent infection
  • Recent surgery or broken bone
  • Replacement hormone therapy (menopause)
  • Smoking

What is an embolism?

An embolism, also called thromboembolism, is a blockage in one of the arteries of the body due to a blood clot that has broken off from another location in the body (embolus) and traveled through the bloodstream to lodge in a small blood vessel. The blockage may limit or stop blood flow. An embolism may be serious and life threatening.

Deep vein thrombosis is the primary cause... Read more about embolismintroduction


What are the symptoms of an embolism?

Symptoms of an embolism vary with the severity and location of the embolism. It is possible to have an embolism without any symptoms.

At times, any of these embolism symptoms can be severe and may indicate a life-threatening condition, such as pulmonary embolism, heart attack, or stroke.

Symptoms of an embolism in the arms or legs

Symptoms of an embolism i... Read more about embolismsymptoms


How is an embolism treated?

Treatment of an embolism varies greatly depending on its severity. The underlying cause of the embolism should be identified and treated promptly. Medications are used to control the formation and growth of blood clots and to restore blood flow to the affected area of the body. More invasive procedures may be required in severe or life-threatening cases of embolism, or if the blood clot is very... Read more about embolismtreatments

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Aug 9, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Heart, Blood and Circulation