Definition, symptoms, treatment, etc.


A cerebral embolism is a blockage in an artery in the brain or in an artery that supplies the brain with blood. Blockages can be caused by a blood clot, fat cell, or an air pocket in an artery.

A cerebral embolism causes an embolic stroke. Without prompt treatment, an embolic stroke can lead to brain damage, disability, and even death.

This article describes what a cerebral embolism is, including its symptoms, causes, and prevention. We also describe how to recognize the signs of a stroke and what to expect in terms of treatment, recovery and outlook.

Stroke affects around 795,000 people in the United States every year. In the United States, stroke is the # 5 cause of death, and the leading cause of disability.

When a stroke occurs, it is essential that a person receive medical treatment quickly to limit damage to the brain. The QUICK The acronym is a helpful way to spot signs of a stroke:

F – Face: Ask the person to smile. Has his mouth or eye sagged to one side?

A – Weapons: Have the person raise both arms. Is an arm drifting down?

S – Speech: Is the person’s speech blurred or unclear? Can they understand what others are saying?

T – Time: It’s time to call 911 if someone exhibits any of the above signs.

A person should note the time when symptoms of stroke first appear, as this can help healthcare professionals decide on the best treatment. The most effective treatment for stroke is a thrombolytic drug known as tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), which helps break up blood clots. However, this medicine is most effective if a person is given it within 3 hours onset of symptoms.

A cerebral embolism occurs when an artery that carries oxygen-rich blood and nutrients to the brain becomes blocked.

Blockages can occur when a blood clot from elsewhere in the body travels through the bloodstream and lodges in an artery inside the brain, or in an artery that supplies the brain. Once an artery is blocked, brain cells don’t get the oxygen they need to function. This causes brain cells to die within minutes.

A cerebral embolism is a type of ischemic stroke, in which blood flow to the brain is blocked. Ischemic strokes make up 87% all the time.

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) or “mini-stroke” is caused by a temporary clot that usually doesn’t last more than 5 minutes. A TIA can be a warning sign of a future stroke.

Symptoms of a stroke are similar for men and women, but can vary depending on where in the brain the blockage occurs.

The most common symptoms of a stroke are:

  • falling to one side of the face
  • weakness or numbness in the arms
  • difficulty speaking or understanding speech

Other possible symptoms include:

Some potential cause cerebral embolism are:

Blood clots

Blood clots can form anywhere in the body. Once formed, a blood clot or a fragment of a blood clot can travel through the bloodstream and lodge in one or more arteries in the brain.

Embolisms are more common in people with atrial fibrillation (AF), which makes the heart beat fast and irregularly. In AF, a blood clot can form in the heart and a piece of the clot can break off and travel to the brain.


A fat embolism is a piece of fat that gets lodged in a blood vessel, blocking blood flow.

Fat embolisms sometimes occur after a person fractures a long bone, such as a thigh bone. Fat from the bone marrow can escape and enter the bloodstream. It can also happen after bone surgery or after suffering severe burns.


Embolisms can occur as a result of air bubbles or other gases entering the bloodstream. According to a review article 2013, it can be a complication of:

  • have a catheter inserted
  • sustain a blunt or penetrating injury
  • scuba diving, where divers come to the surface too quickly
  • childbirth


Cholesterol can build up in the arteries, causing them to narrow. Cholesterol fragments can break off and travel through the blood. Fragments too large to pass through an artery will cause an embolism.

Amniotic liquid

In rare cases, amniotic fluid and other fetal material can seep into the mother’s bloodstream during labor, causing a blockage.

The risk of stroke increases with age for both men and women. However, strokes are more common in women than in men. Women are also more likely to die from stroke than men.

Race is another risk factor for stroke. African Americans are at greater risk for stroke than Caucasians. This increased risk is linked to the prevalence of the following conditions among African Americans:

Certain medical and lifestyle factors can also increase a person’s risk of having a cerebral embolism.

Medical risk factors

Medical risk factors for strokes include:

Have a family history of stroke also increases the likelihood that a person will have a stroke on their own.

Lifestyle risk factors

Lifestyle risk factors for stroke include:

  • eating an unhealthy diet
  • lack of physical activity
  • obesity
  • drink too much alcohol
  • smoking

The first steps towards diagnosing a cerebral embolism include:

  • checking the pulse for an irregular heartbeat
  • measure blood pressure
  • testing the blood for clotting factors that signal a blood clot

A person will then need a brain scan to help determine the location, cause, and severity of the embolism. A doctor will order one of the following tests:

Treatment for a cerebral embolism may include medication, surgery, or both. The type of treatment a person receives depends on several factors, including:

  • the time since the onset of symptoms
  • the location of the embolism
  • the cause of the embolism


A doctor may prescribe one or more of the following products medications to treat cerebral embolism:

  • thrombolytic drug to dissolve blood clots. A person should receive them within 3 hours of the onset of symptoms.
  • aspirin or similar antiplatelet drugs, which reduce the risk of further clots forming
  • anticoagulants, which change the chemistry of the blood to prevent clots from forming
  • blood pressure medications to stabilize blood pressure
  • statins to lower blood cholesterol


In some cases, a surgeon may perform a procedure called a “mechanical thrombectomy”. This involves inserting a catheter into an artery, often in the groin. The surgeon then inserts a small clot removal device through the catheter to extract or aspirate the clot.

Mechanical thrombectomy is only suitable for approximately 1 in 10 people who have a stroke. For the procedure to be successful, a person must receive the treatment within 6 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Brain embolisms can affect people in different ways depending on their severity and where they are in the brain.

After a stroke, a person will likely need time to rebuild their physical strength and regain control of the functions they have lost.

Most people who have had a stroke will continue to take medication while they recover. Their medical team will monitor them regularly and adjust their medications as needed.

A person recovering from a stroke may also benefit from the following services, depending on the nature and severity of their stroke:

  • physiotherapy: A physical therapist can teach a person exercises to help them regain muscle control, coordination, and dexterity.
  • speech therapy or language: A speech-language pathologist can help a person communicate more effectively after a stroke.
  • stroke support groups: A support group can provide practical and emotional support to people recovering from stroke.

Getting prompt treatment for a stroke increases the likelihood of a full recovery. However, people who have had a stroke are at increased risk of having another stroke.

According to a 2019 analysis of health insurance data in Germany, around 3% of people who have had a stroke will have another stroke within 90 days. The risk of another stroke is highest in the first year.

A person who has had a severe stroke can have life-changing disabilities. They may need ongoing medical care as well as practical and emotional support.

According to American Stroke Association, 80% of strokes are preventable.

Regular medical check-ups are especially important for people with underlying conditions that increase their risk for stroke. Examples include:

  • high cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • heart disease
  • autoimmune disease

Embrace health life habits can also help prevent strokes. Examples include:

  • a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • do about 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise each week
  • stop smoking
  • limit alcohol consumption

A cerebral embolism is a blockage in an artery in the brain or in an artery that supplies the brain with oxygenated blood. Such blockages restrict blood flow to the brain, causing brain cells to die quickly.

Brain embolisms can come on suddenly and require prompt treatment to limit damage to the brain. The acronym FAST is a helpful way to spot the signs of a stroke. FAST stands for “face, arm, word and time”. Anyone who thinks they are having a stroke should see a doctor immediately.

The best way to prevent a stroke is to have regular check-ups and live a healthy lifestyle. This includes a healthy, balanced diet and regular physical activity to maintain a healthy weight.


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