When a foreign body travels through the blood vessels to the brain and becomes lodged there, blocking blood flow, this is known as a brain embolism. The foreign material, or embolus, is typically a blood clot, often formed in the heart. Once the blood flow is cut off from a portion of the brain, the neurons there become deprived of oxygen and begin dying within a few minutes, typically causing a stroke, brain damage, or even death.
There is a variety of material that can form an embolism, including air, fat, and cholesterol, but in the majority of cases, one arises from a blood clot that forms in another part of the body, detaches, and migrates to the brain. Often, these clots originate in the heart. Several problems may lead to the formation of a cardiac clot, including atrial fibrillation, infections in the heart, and problems that damage the heart muscle, such as congestive heart failure or heart attack. Clots can also form in arteries that have been damaged.
A brain embolism usually causes an ischemic stroke, meaning portions of the brain are damaged due to lack of blood flow and the ensuing oxygen deprivation. In addition to pain in the head, patients may also suffer various other issues depending on the part of the brain affected. Movement and muscle control on one side of the body or the other may be lost. Hearing, vision, or the ability to speak could be impaired. The person might suffer some memory loss, or have difficulty with tasks he or she could normally perform, such as writing, math, or recognizing familiar people and objects.
To diagnose an embolism and determine how much damage has occurred in the brain, medical professionals will typically use one of two methods. A cranial magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computed tomography (CT) scan may be used to produce an image of the brain, which will show where the embolism and stroke are located. If it is determined that the embolism was caused by a clot that came from the heart, an echocardiogram may also be necessary to see if more clots have formed.
Immediate treatment for an embolism may include medication to break up the clot. Once that issue has been resolved, treatment for the problem that led to the formation of the clot will likely be necessary. Further support for the patient will usually need to be determined depending on how much damage was done to the brain.