An embolus is a blockage of a blood vessel that obstructs blood circulation, often causing a life threatening emergency. When this blood clot travels from its original site to another place in the body, it is called an embolism.

Embolisms include venous embolism, also known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and arterial embolism. Venous embolism can travel to the lungs and cause life-threatening pulmonary embolism (PE), resulting in severe difficulty breathing. Arterial embolism can travel to the brain and cause a stroke.

If medicine does not dissolve an embolus, a surgical procedure called thrombectomy may be used to remove the clot. Embolectomy may be recommended in emergency situations when other interventions are not effective.

Specialists in the medical, interventional and surgical management of diseases and arteries and veins at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Heart & Vascular Center are high-volume performers in all types of cardiac procedures, including embolectomy. This experience and their collaboration with a multidisciplinary team of specialists enables our surgeons to handle cases from routine to complex, with a range of traditional and minimally invasive treatment options that improve the lives of patients throughout the world.

With 47,000 outpatient visits each year, the Heart & Vascular Center is one of the largest in the United States, treating over 7,000 inpatients and performing more than 8,000 procedures annually at our state-of-the-art Shapiro Cardiovascular Center.


Embolectomy Procedures

Minimally Invasive or Open Embolectomy Surgery

Embolectomy may be performed with minimally invasive surgery or traditional (open) heart surgery. Our surgeons are experts in these procedures:

  • Catheter Embolectomy is a minimally invasive procedure that has the benefit of a quicker recovery and less side-effects. A catheter is inserted into the affected vessel and is used to remove the clot.
  • Surgical Embolectomy This involves traditional open heart surgery to remove the blood clot from the affected artery or vein. After dividing the breastbone (sternotomy), your surgeon will open the affected blood vessel and remove the clot. Sometimes, a filter or net will be placed in the inferior vena cava (large vein returning blood from lower body) to prevent further clots from traveling to the heart and lungs.
Why Have an Embolectomy?

Embolectomy is typically performed in severe situations when an embolism is very large and cannot be treated with medication or thrombectomy.

Risk factors for arterial embolism include:

  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Injury to an artery or vein wall
  • Hereditary blood clotting conditions
  • Mitral stenosis or regurgitation
  • Endocarditis

Risk factors for pulmonary embolism include:

  • Genetic conditions that increase blood clot formation
  • Childbirth
  • Heart attack, heart surgery or stroke
  • Severe injuries, burns, or fractures of the hips or thigh bone
  • Bone, joint or brain surgery
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Extended plane or car rides
  • Cancer
  • Birth control pills or estrogen therapy
  • Obesity
  • Varicose veins
  • Long-term bed rest or staying in one position for a long time
  • Cigarette smoking
What You Should Expect

The Heart & Vascular Center is located in the Shapiro Cardiovascular Center, across the street from BWH’s main 75 Francis Street entrance. The Heart & Vascular Center brings together the full range of services in one location, fostering seamless and coordinated care for all cardiovascular patients.

Prior to surgery, you will be scheduled for a visit to the Watkins Clinic in the Shapiro Cardiovascular Center for preoperative information and tests.

The day of surgery, your care will be provided by surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses who specialize in embolectomy procedures. The Heart & Vascular Center is home to one of the most advanced hybrid operating rooms in the country. After surgery, you will recover in the post-surgical care unit where you will receive comprehensive care by an experienced surgical and nursing staff.

During your surgery, family and friends can wait in the Shapiro Family Center where staff members will provide surgery updates.

Multidisciplinary Care

Patients benefit from the teamwork of surgeons, medical cardiologists, interventional cardiologists, cardiovascular imaging experts and radiologists, and anesthesiologists, all experts in cardiovascular disease. They work alongside nurses, physician assistants, physical therapists, dietitians and social workers to achieve outstanding outcomes for our patients.


Learn more about pulmonary embolism in our health library.

Visit the Kessler Health Education Library in the Bretholtz Center for Patients and Families to access computers and knowledgeable staff.

Access a complete directory of patient and family services.

Learn about the Watkins Clinic in the Shapiro Cardiovascular Center.

Download Cardiac Surgery: A Guide for Patients in English or in Spanish.

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