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Air Embolism is a life-threatening condition that affects many divers around the world. Know all about this dreaded medical syndrome, its causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

What is Air Embolism?

It is a condition marked by entry of air bubbles into the circulation. The term “Air Embolism” refers to an air bubble that gets trapped abnormally in a blood capillary.

Air Embolism Signs and Symptoms

This condition is marked by a number of discomforting complications. Some of the main Air Embolism symptoms are

Stroke

It occurs when air bubbles get trapped in the brain of affected people. Air bubble in brain also leads to convulsions.

Chest Pain

Entrapment of air bubbles in the pulmonary vessels gives rise to pain in the chest. It also results in shortness of breath.

Heart Attack

Trapped air bubbles in the brain or arteries of the heart may also lead to heart attacks.

Some other discomforting signs and symptoms of air embolism are

  • Seizures
  • Partial Paralysis
  • Mental confusion
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Blurry vision
  • Reduced oxygen in tissues of blood
  • Cyanosis (Bluish discoloration of skin)
  • Irregular respiration

What Causes Air Embolism?

A number of factors can be Air Embolism causes. These include

Surgery

An improper surgical operation can cause entry of air bubbles into the circulatory system and give rise to complications. This usually happens during blood transfusion. When a large quantity of blood enters the body, there is high chance of introduction of air into the vessels. Open-heart surgery and Caesarean sections are some operations that can lead to this disorder, if conducted without absolute care.

Trauma

Injury to the skin surface can also introduce air globules into the bloodstream. Accidents such as car crash that sometimes result in high damage to the chest can lead to this condition.

Intravenous Injections

If intravenous injections contain trapped air, it can enter the blood and cause complications.

Removal of Catheter

Air bubbles may also enter the body when a catheter is being removed. If improperly removed, it can cause complications in patients suffering renal conditions.

Oral Sex

In some cases of oral sex, air globules can enter the vagina and block the blood capillaries surrounding the vagina of a pregnant woman. Blowing air into the vagina has also been found to cause air embolism during pregnancy. It is very rare but can lead to death when it happens.

Air Embolism Mechanism of Death

When air bubbles are introduced into the bloodstream, it blocks the normal flow of blood. In worse cases, air Embolism may travel through the blood and cut of blood supply to important organs such as the heart and the brain. Air bubbles blocks vessels that transport blood to the brain and cuts off vital blood supply to the tissues. Even five minutes of lack of oxygen and nutrients can cause immense damage nervous tissues. This can lead to breathing difficulties, unconsciousness, convulsions and even death.

Air Embolism Pulmonary Barotrauma Problem

It is a condition caused by damage to the lungs brought about by a change in air pressure. This commonly happens when divers run out of oxygen and rapidly swim back to the surface while holding their breath. When they come back to water surface, the pressure decreases around them causing the air in their lungs to expand. Expansion of air can excessively inflate their lungs and cause tear in the alveoli or the small air sacs present in the lungs.

Air Embolism and Scuba Diving

This condition is particularly common among scuba divers. If they come to surface very quickly or hold their breath due to running out of oxygen, they can have air bubbles entering their lungs. This is a common cause of death among scuba divers. The disorder can occur in as low as one metre water.

Air Embolism and Decompression Sickness in Scuba Divers

Decompression Sickness is a disease that occurs when nitrogen that is converted into blood under extreme air pressure develops into bubbles when a diver swims back to the water surface. When divers swim in deep water, they breathe in compressed air that consists of nitrogen. This gets trapped in the tissues and blood of divers. When divers come back to water surface, the gas gets transformed into bubbles that are difficult to breathe out immediately. These trapped bubbles may give rise to Air Embolism.

Air Embolism Treatment

Treatment for air embolism is usually carried by complicated means. Patients who are supposed to be suffering from this condition are put in a tilted position with their head facing downwards. This helps slow down the speed of travel of air bubble through the bloodstream and prevent it from reaching vital organs like heart or brain too fast. Even if the globule of air has reached the heart, this position helps trap it at the highest point of the ventricular chamber.

If the bubble reaches the heart, cardiopulmonary resuscitation may be required for Air Embolism cure. Pure oxygen may also be provided for treatment of air embolism.

Air Embolism Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is the best cure for air embolism. This method involves keeping patients in a “Hyperbaric Chamber” or a room where the air pressure is greater than normal. The pressure inside the room is regulated by personnel in hospital.

If air embolism patients are placed inside these chambers, the higher air pressure coverts the gases trapped inside the embolism into blood. It cures embolism in this way. The pressure is gradually decreased to normal while the patient is made to breathe in a pure oxygen-gas mixture. This lets the body take in gases slowly so that there is not a recurrence of air embolism.

Air Embolism Risk Factors

Presence of certain conditions increases susceptibility to this disorder. These include

  • Heart defects of certain types
  • Dehydration
  • Old age
  • Fatigue
  • Cold water
  • Long time spent in water of great depth
  • Increase of depth of water
  • Rapidly swimming back to water surface from a great depth
  • Obesity
  • Flying just after diving
  • Diving repeatedly on the same day

Air Embolism is a very complicated disorder that often results in death. If you find someone suffering from symptoms similar to this condition, treat it as an emergency condition and seek immediate medical attention. With timely treatment, cure is possible and the life of the patient can be saved.

References:

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Air-embolism/Pages/Causes.aspx

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/10682/air-embolism

http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/761367-overview

http://www.wrongdiagnosis.com/a/air_embolism/intro.htm


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