HEALTHY LIVING
06/13/2008 06:23 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Coronary Embolism: Pictures, Symptoms, And Other Answers

It's reported that Tim Russert died Friday at age 58 of a coronary embolism, but the autopsy is still pending. In the meantime, here are answers to some questions you might be asking.

What is an embolism?

An embolism is an obstruction in a blood vessel due to a blood clot or other foreign matter that gets stuck while traveling through the bloodstream. The plural of embolism is emboli.

Emboli have moved from the place where they were formed through the bloodstream to another part of the body, where they obstruct an artery and block the flow of blood. The emboli are usually formed from blood clots but are occasionally comprised of air, fat, or tumor tissue. Embolic events can be multiple and small, or single and massive. They can be life-threatening and require immediate emergency medical care. There are three general categories of emboli: arterial, gas, and pulmonary. Pulmonary emboli are the most common.

Coronary relates to or denotes the arteries that surround and supply the heart.

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What happens if someone has an embolism?

An embolism in an artery in the brain can cause a transient ischaemic attack, or a stroke. An embolism in a coronary artery (an artery on the surface of the heart) can cause a heart attack.

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What are the symptoms of an embolism?

The symptoms of embolism depend on where in the body it occurs and how big it is. If the embolism is small and in a minor blood vessel, it won't cause any immediate symptoms. If its large, the embolism can completely block the flow of blood to part of the body, which can be life threatening.

An embolism in an artery causes symptoms in the affected area and may include the following:

-pain,
-numbness,
-tingling,
-coldness,
-mottled or pale skin, and
-muscular spasms (twitches) or paralysis (unable to move).

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What does a coronary embolism look like?


Image of a coronary embolism in a 54-year-old man.


Image of a coronary embolism in a 67-year-old man.

What are the different types of embolism?

-Thromboembolism: This is when a part of a blood clot (thrombus) blocks blood flow to a major organ such as the heart or lungs. Its the most common type of embolism.

-Arterial embolism: This is when one or more blockages form in major arteries, often as a complication of heart disease or atrial fibrillation (a heart rhythm disorder).

-Venous embolism: This type of blockage is caused by a particle of fat or piece of bone marrow, which is sometimes released from a fractured bone. Its much less common than an arterial embolism.

-Cerebral embolism: This is when an embolism, usually a blood clot, gets trapped in an artery in the brain. It's one of the most common causes of a stroke.

-Pulmonary embolism: This is when a blood clot in a vein in the leg (deep vein thrombosis) breaks away and travels up to the heart in the blood stream. It can eventually get stuck in one of the main arteries to the lungs, which can cause sudden and unexpected death.

-Air embolism: This is a rare type of embolism that happens when a bubble of air gets trapped in the blood and causes a blockage.

-Cholesterol embolism: This type of embolism can form by itself, or following treatment to widen the arteries if they've become blocked up with fatty deposits (plaques). Tiny crystals of cholesterol are sometimes released from the fatty deposits and can cause blockages in small arteries.

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What's the prognosis?

Of patients hospitalized with an arterial embolism, 25-30% die, and 5-25% require amputation of a limb. About 10% of patients with a pulmonary embolism die suddenly within the first hour of onset of the condition. The outcome for all other patients is generally good; only 3% of patients die who are properly diagnosed early and treated. In cases of an undiagnosed pulmonary embolism, about 30% of patients die.

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How can you prevent an embolism?

You can reduce the risk of an embolism occurring by:

-stopping smoking,
-maintaining a healthy weight for your height, and
-taking regular exercise.

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