When a clot, known as an embolus, travels through the blood and causes an obstruction, healthcare professionals refer to this as an “embolism.” A cardiac source of embolism is the obstruction of a blood vessel that results from an embolus that travels from the heart.

A 2021 article notes that an embolus usually consists of a blood clot. Less commonly, it can consist of air, fat, amniotic fluid, or a tumor.

A cardiac source of embolism can travel to different places in the body, possibly resulting in life threatening complications.

This article will explain what a cardiac embolism is. It will also examine what the symptoms, causes, and risk factors of a cardiac embolism are. Finally, it talks about how healthcare professionals diagnose the condition and how a person can help to prevent it from developing.

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A cardiac embolism causes a blocked artery, which can affect blood flow. They are caused by a cardiac embolus, which originates in the heart. A cardiac thrombus is a blood clot that forms in the heart, and when it travels, it is called an embolism.

Depending on where the blockage occurs, a person can experience different complications, for example:

  • A blockage in the heart’s blood vessels can lead to a heart attack.
  • A blockage in the organs can lead to organ damage.
  • A blockage in the limbs can lead to a peripheral embolism.

When a cardiac embolus makes its way into the brain, it can cause a cardiac embolism, which can cause what doctors call a cardioembolic stroke. These strokes make up around 25% of all ischemic strokes.

An acute stroke is when a portion of the brain is suddenly deprived of blood. These strokes can be divided into two main categories — ischemic strokes and hemorrhagic strokes.

Ischemic strokes make up 85% of acute strokes. They occur when something blocks the blood flow in a blood vessel that supplies the brain.

Symptoms can depend on which artery is blocked.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), if a blood clot is present in the blood vessels around the heart, a person may experience:

  • shortness of breath
  • discomfort in the arms, neck, back, or jaw
  • chest pain

A person may also experience:

  • sweating
  • lightheadedness
  • nausea

Essentially, the blood clot causes a heart attack by blocking the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart.

A blood clot just sitting in the heart may not cause any symptoms.

If the blood clot has traveled to the carotid arteries and causes a cardioembolic stroke, a person will experience the symptoms of a stroke.

A 2021 review also notes that cardioembolic strokes are more likely to cause seizures than other strokes.

A cardiac source of embolism occurs when an embolus travels from the heart and causes a blockage in an artery. The cause can vary, as an embolus can consist of:

  • a blood clot
  • air
  • fat
  • tumor
  • other substance

Benign tumors can form in the heart. The most common are called atrial myxomas. In 30–50% of people with myxomas, an embolism will occur as a complication.

There are many factors that can lead to the formation of a blood clot in the heart. One example is endocarditis. This is an infection of the lining of the heart. Infected blood clots, called septic emboli, can form at the site of infection and travel to other parts of the body. This is a common complication of endocarditis.

The AHA notes that the following can increase the chance of developing a blood clot in the heart:

  • Atrial fibrillation: This is a condition that causes an irregular and fast heartbeat. Atrial fibrillation is the most common cause of cardioembolic stroke because the blood clots form in the left atrial appendage in the heart and travel to the brain.
  • Heart failure: This weakens the heart. Blood clots can form, as the heart is unable to pump blood around the body.
  • Atherosclerosis: Atherosclerosis is the buildup of fats and cholesterol in the artery walls. Plaque can build up and restrict the blood flow in the arteries. If the plaque ruptures, the fats and cholesterol can travel through the body, leading to a blood clot.
  • Vasculitis: Vasculitis causes the blood vessels to become inflamed. Clots can form when the platelets stick to the damaged blood vessels.

Risk factors may vary depending on the type of embolus.

The American Society of Hematology notes that the following can increase the chance of developing blood clots:

An air embolus can occur as a result of scuba diving and during some medical procedures.

Risk factors for fat embolisms include:

  • being young in age
  • closed bone fractures
  • multiple bone fractures
  • long-term conservative treatment for fractures, such as casts and splints

A healthcare professional may perform the following tests to diagnose a cardiac embolism:

  • electrocardiograms, which measure the heart’s activity
  • transesophageal or transthoracic echocardiogram, which measure heart functionality and structure and look for clots in the heart
  • MRI and CT scans to measure brain function or look at blood vessels in the brain, the neck, or around the body
  • blood tests to assess for damage to the heart muscle
  • carotid ultrasound, which is an imaging test that examines the inside of the carotid arteries

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) notes that treating an embolism depends on what is causing the blockage and the size and location of the blockage.

To treat blood clots, a healthcare professional may prescribe medications to dissolve them.

A surgeon may also perform an embolectomy. A surgeon will make a cut in the artery and use a process called aspiration to remove the clot.

According to SecondsCount.org, prevention of a cardiac embolism depends on the potential risk factors.

If a person is at risk of developing blood clots, a healthcare professional may prescribe blood-thinning medication, such as anticoagulants.

If a person has a heart condition, such as atrial fibrillation, they may take medications to help regulate their heart’s rhythm.

A healthcare professional may also perform the following procedures:

  • Electrical cardioversion: An electric shock can restart the heart’s normal rhythm.
  • Catheter ablation: A doctor destroys the small amounts of heart tissue that are sending signals that cause atrial fibrillation.
  • Left atrial appendage closure: This is a procedure to help prevent blood from collecting and clotting.

If a person is at risk of heart failure, taking steps to prevent this can help reduce the chance of clots. A person can take the following steps to reduce the risk of heart failure:

  • trying to stop smoking, if applicable
  • eating heart-healthy foods, such as:
    • fruit
    • vegetables
    • low fat dairy
    • lean proteins
  • trying to maintain a moderate weight
  • monitoring and managing any existing heart conditions

If the embolism consists of fat or air, a healthcare professional may recommend surgery.

The outlook for people who have had a cardioembolic stroke varies greatly, depending on:

  • the severity of the stroke
  • how quickly the individual receives treatment
  • the treatment for the underlying causes

Another important factor here is the risk of having another stroke, which is slightly higher with cardioembolic strokes than in some other types of stroke.

A person should contact a doctor if they have a blood clot in the heart or experience any symptoms of a blood clot in the heart.

Anyone with symptoms of cardioembolic stroke should seek immediate medical advice. Even those without the symptoms may want to speak with a doctor if they have a condition that increases their risk of strokes.

A cardiac source of embolism causes a blocked artery that happens as a result of a blood clot that forms in one of the chambers of the heart.

Blood clots in the heart can occur due to a variety of reasons, such as atrial fibrillation or cardiomyopathy/congestive heart failure.

If the blood clot travels to the brain, it can cause a cardioembolic stroke.

If a person has a condition that increases their chance of developing blood clots, a healthcare professional may prescribe medications to thin the blood. They may also perform procedures to prevent blood clotting and restore the heart’s natural rhythm or pumping function.