The human body can experience many different types of embolisms, which are blockages to blood flow by an object that lodges in a blood vessel. Not to be confused with a thrombus, which is the term given to a stationary blood clot, an embolus can be small clots, air bubbles or plaque among other objects, and it can travel through vessels to other parts of the body. When an embolism is caused by infected tissue, it is called a septic embolism, also known as an arterial embolism, and symptoms are often mistaken for other conditions, such as inflamed lymph nodules. Symptoms include pus where the infection originally occurred, numbness and sometimes convulsions.
One of the main symptoms of a septic embolism is the appearance of pus and inflammation. Infected tissue is common around intravenous or surgical locations, particularly around veins and other blood vessels. The immune system responds to the bacteria that enter the body at the site. Unfortunately, pieces of infected tissue can break from the area and travel through the vessels until they finally become lodged and block proper blood flow.
Another symptom of a septic embolism is numbness. The limbs, fingers and other locations of the body can feel numb or tingly as a result of the reduction of blood and oxygen to the area. Skin at the affected area can feel cold to the touch. In some instances, there may be a lack of a pulse to the area as well.
Strokes are common occurrences that can result from an embolism and are commonly referred to as septic strokes. Similar to traditional embolisms, a septic stroke blocks blood flow to and from the heart, affecting how the heart valves function. This shocks the heart and can lead to complete failure. The failure affects the amount of blood that circulates through the body all together, including blood flow to the brain. Without this blood flow, the brain is starved of the oxygen that it needs.
Diagnosing a septic embolism can prove to be difficult for medical professionals. Blood tests show an elevation in white blood cells, which signifies an infection, but it does not always show the cause of the infection. In many instances, sites of infection do not exhibit typical symptoms. There may not be any visible swelling or redness, which can make diagnosis more difficult.
Computer tomography scans can prove to be dissuading as well. These scans are often used to find various problems with the heart and the pulmonary system. The problem is that they do not have the ability to show the blockages that are a result of infectious tissue that occur with a septic embolism. They can only show solid or thick images that are common with blood clots or plaque clots.
Angiograms and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are the two types of tests that are commonly used to diagnose a septic embolism. These two tests provide imaging of blockages within the vessels and the heart valves. An MRI can be used with or without contrast as needed to get a proper image. Angiograms use small cameras that are navigated through vessels at the site of the blockage to get a better view.