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Treatment for Air and Gas Embolisms

When an air or gas embolism occurs, the immediate course of treatment is to have the patient lie down and administer oxygen. The patient then transports to a location with a hyperbaric chamber. As the main FDA-approved treatment for air and gas embolisms, HBOT treatments provide 100 percent oxygen at high pressures. This helps reduce the size of the embolism and forces the air or gas back into the body to dissolve in the blood.

What is an Air or Gas Embolism?

person scuba diving

An air or gas embolism occurs when bubbles form inside the arteries or veins and block the flow of blood to vital organs. In the case of decompression sickness, or the bends, for example, scuba divers breathe compressed air during a dive. Under pressure, each breath is filled with more molecules of nitrogen and oxygen than you take in on the surface. That extra nitrogen accumulates in the body and as pressure decreases as a diver ascends, that excess nitrogen can form bubbles in the blood and tissues in the body. Because of this, divers must make a slow and gradual ascent, allowing for the release of the nitrogen. This is the leading cause of death among scuba divers.

While decompression sickness is a common cause of air and gas embolisms, they can occur because of many different reasons. A few possible causes include:

  • Intravenous drip
  • Hemodialysis
  • Laparoscopic insufflations – during certain laparoscopic surgeries, air is blown into the surgical area to allow room for the surgeon to work.
  • Open heart surgery
  • Lung biopsy
  • Radiologic procedures where dye is injected
  • Childbirth, especially cesarean
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) – a procedure used to examine the pancreatic and bile ducts
  • Wound irrigation with hydrogen peroxide
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
  • Gastrointestinal endoscopy

Symptoms of an Air or Gas Embolism

Scuba diving oxygen tank

Symptoms of an air or gas embolism vary depending on where the blockage occurs. They can develop immediately or take time to appear.

Some common symptoms include:

  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Blurred or impaired vision
  • Anxiety or extreme restlessness
  • Itchy skin
  • Seizures
  • Bloody frothing from the mouth
  • Dizziness, often due to low blood pressure
  • Trouble breathing and catching your breath
  • Chest pain
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Loss of coordination
  • Hallucinations
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Cyanosis (a blue color to the skin)
  • Paralysis or weakness of the arms and legs
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Kidney complications
  • Cardiac arrest