Arterial Embolism

Written by Brindles Lee Macon and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on July 18, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD on July 18, 2014


An arterial embolism is a blood clot that has travelled through your arteries and become stuck. This can block or restrict blood flow. Clots generally affect the arms, legs, or feet. An “embolism” is anything that obstructs blood flow. The plural of embolism is emboli. A blood clot is also known as a thrombus.

A single clot can cause more than one embolism. Pieces may break free and get stuck in other parts of the body. Some emboli travel to the brain, heart, and kidneys.

When an artery is blocked, it can cause tissue damage or death in the affected area. Because of this, an arterial embolism is a medical emergency. It requires immediate treatment to prevent permanent injury.

What Causes an Arterial Embolism?

A number of things may cause an arterial embolism. Damage to the arteries by disease or other health conditions is one major cause. High blood pressure may also increase the risk of an embolism. It weakens the arterial walls. Blood may accumulate in the weakened artery and form clots.

Other common causes of blood clots include:

  • smoking
  • hardening of the arteries, from high cholesterol
  • surgery that affects blood circulation
  • injuries to the arteries
  • heart disease
  • atrial fibrillation – a type of rapid and irregular heartbeat

Who Is at Risk For an Arterial Embolism?

You may be at risk for an arterial embolism if you:

  • smoke tobacco products
  • have high blood pressure
  • have had recent surgery
  • have heart disease
  • eat a diet high in cholesterol
  • have an abnormally fast heart rate

What Are the Symptoms of Arterial Embolism?

The symptoms of this condition depend on the location of the embolism. If you have any of the follow symptoms, report them to your doctor at once.

Symptoms you may notice in an arm or leg after an embolism has formed:

  • coldness
  • lack of pulse
  • lack of movement
  • tingling or numbness
  • pain or spasms in the muscles
  • pale skin
  • a feeling of weakness

These symptoms will likely be asymmetrical. They will only appear on the side of your body with the embolism.

Symptoms that may occur if an embolism is not treated or worsens:

  • ulcers (open sores)
  • an appearance of shedding skin
  • tissue death

How Is an Arterial Embolism Diagnosed?

Your physician may check for a decrease in your pulse or heart rate. The lack of a local pulse may indicate tissue death. He may also use diagnostic and imaging tests to locate any embolisms present in your body.

Common tests include:

  • angiogram – examines the blood vessels for abnormalities
  • Doppler ultrasound – watches blood flow
  • MRI – takes images of the body to locate blood clots

How Is an Arterial Embolism Treated?

Embolism treatment depends on the slize and location of the clot. It can involve medication, surgery, or both. The goal is to break up a clot and restore proper circulation.


Anticoagulants can be used to prevent blood clots.

Thrombolytics may be ordered to destroy existing emboli.

Intravenous pain medication may also be needed.


Angioplasty may be performed to bypass a clot. It is a technique used to open up blocked or narrowed blood vessels. A balloon catheter is inserted into an artery and guided to the clot. Once there, it is inflated to open up the blocked vessel. A stent may be used to support the repaired walls.

What Can Be Expected in the Long Term?

Your recovery will depend on how long you’ve had the embolism. The clot’s location and severity are also factors.

Many people recover succesfully from emboli. However, treated embolisms can recur. There can be permanent damage to the affected area.

How Can an Arterial Embolism Be Prevented?

To help improve your blood circulation, you can:

  • avoid smoking
  • refrain from eating foods high in fats and cholesterol
  • exercise several times a week
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