An air embolism is a medical condition characterized by a bubble in the bloodstream. Air embolisms are more properly termed “gas embolisms,” since the gas involved does not necessarily need to be air. Depending on the size of an air embolism, it can cause a variety of problems, ranging chest pain to death, and it is important to treat embolisms if they are suspected to avoid long-term complications or death.
A number of things can lead to an air embolism. Trauma, for example, can introduce air into the bloodstream, as can some surgical procedures, and air in intravenous lines or syringes. Diving also puts people at risk for a type of air embolism called an arterial gas embolism. As the bubble enters the bloodstream, it occludes it, obstructing the flow of blood. The embolism may also travel, cutting off blood flow to various organs, and potentially reaching the heart and causing a fatal disruption of cardiac function.
Someone with an air embolism will generally develop cardiac problems, chest pain, pale skin, seizures, and an altered level of consciousness. If someone has engaged in activity which would put them at risk for an air embolism, a doctor may recommend that treatment begin immediately. Tests such as imaging studies and arterial blood gas tests can also be used to confirm the diagnosis.
In emergency treatment, a patient with a suspected air embolism will often be placed in the Trendelenberg position, a slanted position with the head facing down. This is designed to trap the air bubble in the apex of the ventricle, if it has reached the heart, and also slows the rate of travel, making the embolism less likely to reach the brain or heart. Pure oxygen may also be used in treatment, and the patient may require cardiopulmonary resuscitation if the embolism reaches the heart.
The best treatment for an air embolism is often a stay in a hyperbaric chamber. A hyperbaric chamber is a pressurized chamber which can be controlled by hospital personnel. If a patient is placed in the chamber and the pressure is increased, the pressure will force the gases in the embolism to dissolve into the blood, clearing the embolism. Then, the pressure can be slowly decreased while the patient breathes a high-oxygen gas mixture, allowing the body to express the gases slowly and safely so that the embolism does not re-form.