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What is an Embolectomy?

By E. Fogarty
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An embolectomy is the surgical removal of an embolus in a blood vessel. An embolus is something foreign that travels through the bloodstream and blocks it by getting lodged in a vessel. A blockage in a blood vessel prevents oxygen from traveling through the bloodstream efficiently, which can cause tissue death. An embolus could be a clump of bacteria, air, or most commonly, a detached blood clot.

Blood clots are ordinarily a good thing. The body forms them to plug an injured blood vessel to stop blood flow. When the blood vessel heals, they dissolve and are reabsorbed by the body.

Blood clots are dangerous when they form within veins and arteries in such a way that they block a vessel, in a type of clot called a thrombus. Clots are also dangerous when an embolus breaks off and travels to an important vein or artery. This typically happens only after major trauma, like a car accident or an operation.

An embolus can be life-threatening if it becomes lodged in the pulmonary artery, which travels from the heart to the lungs; in one of the coronary arteries, which are located on the heart’s surface; or in one of the carotid arteries, which are located in the neck and supply blood to the brain. If an embolus blocks the femoral artery in the leg, it could result in tissue death and potential loss of the leg. If one lodges in an artery in the abdomen, it can cause pain and vomiting.

In any of these cases, the embolus will have to be surgically removed in an embolectomy. An embolectomy is typically performed under general anesthesia, unless the physician decides that that would be dangerous for his patient. In that case, the patient will be given a sedative and local anesthetic in the site where the embolectomy will be performed.

During an embolectomy, a surgeon will make a cut into the skin and find the artery or vein that is blocked by the embolus. That artery will be opened, and a special catheter, a hollow tube about the width of a pencil with a small inflatable balloon at the tip, is slid down the artery. The clot is sucked through the catheter while the balloon is inflated to displace the clot as it is extracted. Then the artery is stitched and the surgeon makes sure that blood is flowing properly before the skin is closed. An embolectomy is a fairly common procedure that can be performed quickly, and recovery is usually rapid.

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