Types of Air Embolisms

Instructor: Jose Hernandez
This lesson will discuss different types of embolisms. We will discuss the vessels affected by embolisms and the organs most susceptible to damage by air bubbles.

What Is an Air Embolism?

Embolisms, although rare, can have devastating consequences if left untreated. An embolism is considered any particle that has entered a blood vessel. The particle, known as an embolus, can range from:

  • blood clots
  • fat
  • bone marrow particles
  • amniotic fluid during pregnancy
  • air

This lesson will cover the type of embolism caused by air bubbles entering the bloodstream. The most common ways for an air bubble to enter the body are through medical procedures and by rapid ascension during scuba diving.

Although medical procedures are a major cause for embolisms, they are diagnosed quickly with the help of medical equipment during an operation or similar event. During a medical intervention, air bubbles can enter blood vessels through intravenous lines or during surgery, when organs are more susceptible to injury.

Medical procedures, such as inserting catheters, can cause air embolisms
Medical procedures, such as inserting catheters, can cause air embolisms

The second most common cause of air embolisms is related to scuba diving. Divers can form air bubbles in blood vessels by holding their breath for too long and by executing rapid ascents to the surface. By holding their breath for extended periods of time, a diver can rupture the air sacs in the lungs, allowing air bubbles to enter the bloodstream. During a rapid ascent, divers do not allow the body to reabsorb nitrogen that was acquired during the dive. This nitrogen, if not absorbed properly, can cause air bubbles to form.

Now that we have briefly covered what an air embolism is and how it can enter the body, we will now cover the different types of air embolisms, categorized by the type of organ they affect.

Types of Air Embolism

Air embolisms can be categorized by the type of blood vessel they affect. The two main types of air embolisms are venous embolism and arterial air embolism.

  • Venous air embolisms - A venous air embolism refers to air bubbles being trapped in the veins. A vein is a blood vessel that carries blood back to the heart. The blood carried by veins contains carbon dioxide and other waste products accumulated by the body. This blood is cleaned in the lungs. Blockage in a vein caused by air bubbles can prevent the flow of blood into the lungs. This disorder is mostly caused by medical procedures. Events such as intravenous injections or the separation of organs during surgery can cause air bubbles to form in the veins. Fortunately, during medical intervention, a person is connected to various equipment capable of detecting any air bubbles.
  • Arterial air embolisms - An arterial air embolism forms when an air bubble enters the bloodstream through an artery. An artery is a blood vessel that carries blood rich with oxygen and other nutrients to different parts of the body. As muscles, organs, and other body parts use oxygen and nutrients, they need to be replenished. Arteries carry blood that was enriched with oxygen and nutrients in the lungs to the rest of the body. When an air bubble is trapped in an artery, the heart is unable to supply oxygen to organs, which can have devastating consequences if not treated immediately. This type of embolism can be caused by ruptures in the alveoli in the lungs. This is more common among divers, who are exposed to changes in pressure while ascending at the end of their dive.

Rapid ascents during scuba diving can lead to arterial air embolisms
Rapid ascension during scuba diving can lead to arterial air embolisms

These two types of air embolisms can give rise to a diverse range of disorders, including ischemic stroke, heart attack, cerebral embolism, and renal failure. These disorders are triggered by a lack of blood to the respective organs, which can be caused by an air bubble blocking blood flow in arteries or veins.

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