Venous Air Embolism

Updated: Dec 30, 2017
Author: Brenda L Natal, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Erik D Schraga, MD 



Venous air embolism (VAE), a subset of gas embolism, is an entity with the potential for severe morbidity and mortality. It is a predominantly iatrogenic complication[1, 2] that occurs when atmospheric gas is introduced into the systemic venous system.[3]

In the past, VAE was mostly associated with neurosurgical procedures conducted in the sitting position.[4, 5] Subsequently, it has been associated with central venous catheterization,[3, 6, 7] scalp incision,[8] cervical spine fusion,[9] penetrating and blunt chest trauma,[10, 11, 12] high-pressure mechanical ventilation,[3] thoracocentesis,[1] hemodialysis,[3, 7, 13] and several other invasive vascular procedures.

VAE has also been observed during diagnostic studies, such as during radiocontrast injection for computed tomography (CT).[14, 15] The use of gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide during medical procedures and exposure to nitrogen during diving accidents can also result in VAE.[2] In addition, apparent cases of VAE resulting from pressurized, intravenous infusion of normal saline have been reported in professional football players.[16]

Many cases of VAE are subclinical with no adverse outcome and thus go unreported. Usually, when symptoms are present, they are nonspecific, and a high index of clinical suspicion for possible VAE is required to prompt investigations and initiate appropriate therapy.


The following two preconditions must exist for VAE to occur[4, 17] :

  • Direct communication between a source of air and the vasculature
  • Pressure gradient favoring the passage of air into the circulation

The key factors determining the degree of morbidity and mortality in venous air emboli are related to the volume of gas entrainment, the rate of accumulation, and the patient’s position at the time of the event.[1, 6, 15]

Generally, small amounts of air are broken up in the capillary bed and absorbed from the circulation without producing symptoms. Traditionally, it has been estimated that more than 5 mL/kg of air displaced into the intravenous space is required for significant injury (shock or cardiac arrest) to occur.[1] However, complications have been reported with as little as 20 mL of air[7] (the length of an unprimed IV infusion tubing) that was injected intravenously.

Injection of 2 or 3 mL of air into the cerebral circulation can be fatal.[18] Furthermore, as little as 0.5 mL of air in the left anterior descending coronary artery has been shown to cause ventricular fibrillation.[11, 18] Basically, the closer the vein of entrainment is to the right heart, the smaller the lethal volume is.[1]

Rapid entry or large volumes of air entering the systemic venous circulation puts a substantial strain on the right ventricle, especially if this results in a significant rise in pulmonary artery (PA) pressures. This increase in PA pressure can lead to right ventricular outflow obstruction and further compromise pulmonary venous return to the left heart. The diminished pulmonary venous return will lead to decreased left ventricular preload with resultant decreased cardiac output and eventual systemic cardiovascular collapse.[1, 4, 6]

With VAE, resultant tachyarrhythmias are frequent, but bradyarrhythmias can also occur.[2, 4]

The rapid ingress of large volumes of air (>0.30 mL/kg/min) into the venous circulatory system can overwhelm the air-filtering capacity of the pulmonary vessels, resulting in a myriad of cellular changes.[3] The air embolism effects on the pulmonary vasculature can lead to serious inflammatory changes in the pulmonary vessels; these include direct endothelial damage and accumulation of platelets, fibrin, neutrophils, and lipid droplets.[1]

Secondary injury as a result of the activation of complement and the release of mediators and free radicals can lead to capillary leakage and eventual noncardiogenic pulmonary edema.[1, 3, 7]

Alteration in the resistance of the lung vessels and ventilation-perfusion mismatching can lead to intra-pulmonary right-to-left shunting and increased alveolar dead space with subsequent arterial hypoxia and hypercapnia.[1, 4, 15]

Arterial embolism as a complication of VAE can occur through direct passage of air into the arterial system via anomalous structures such as an atrial or ventricular septal defect, a patent foramen ovale, or pulmonary arteriovenous malformations. This can cause paradoxic embolization into the arterial tree.[1, 2, 3, 4, 11] The risk for a paradoxical embolus seems to be increased during procedures performed in the sitting position.[1, 5]

Air embolism has also been described as a potential cause of the systemic inflammatory response syndrome (case report), triggered by the release of endothelium-derived cytokines.[17]


In order for VAE to occur, the following two physical preconditions for the entry of gas into the venous system must be met[2, 4] :

  • A direct communication between a source of air/gas and the vasculature (incising of noncollapsed veins) must exist
  • A pressure gradient (subatmospheric pressure in the vessels) favoring the passage of air into the circulation must be present

Classically, VAE has been recognized as occurring in the context of decompression illness in divers, aviators, and astronauts. Barotrauma and air emboli complicate an estimated 7 of every 100,000 dives.[19, 20]  However, the most common cause of VAE is iatrogenic.

Surgical procedures

Surgical procedures are the primary cause of VAE. Neurosurgical procedures, especially those performed in the Fowler (sitting) position, and otolaryngologic interventions are the two most common surgeries complicated by VAE.[5]  Note the following:

  • The incidence of mild or clinically silent VAE during neurosurgical procedures has been estimated to range between 10% in cervical laminectomy surgeries where the patients are in the prone position, and 80% during posterior fossa surgeries (eg, repair of cranial synostosis) where patients are placed in the Fowler position [2, 21, 22, 23, 24]
  • VAE poses a risk anytime the surgical wound is elevated more than 5 cm above the right atrium. [2] ; the presence of numerous, large, noncompressed, venous channels in the surgical field (especially during cervical procedures and craniotomies that breach the dural sinuses) also increase the risk of VAE
  • Entrainment of air/gas facilitated by the patient's intraoperative position causing VAE, may result from other surgical procedures, including craniofacial surgery, dental implant surgery, vascular procedures (eg, endarterectomies), liver transplantation, orthopedic procedures (eg, hip replacement, spine surgery, arthroscopy), lateral decubitus thoracotomy, genitourinary surgeries in the Trendelenburg position, and surgeries involving tumors/malformations with high degree of vascularity or compromised vessels, as in the context of trauma [1, 7]
  • A preliminary study by Longatti et al suggested that carbon dioxide field flooding (ie, carbox dioxide–enriched surgical microenvironment) reduces the hemodynamic effects of VAE occurring in the sitting position, which the investigators attribute to the better solubility and improved tolerance of the arterial carbon dioxide emboli compared to air emboli [25]

Obstetric/gynecologic procedures, laparoscopy

Obstetric/gynecologic procedures (cesarean delivery) and laparoscopic surgeries each carry their own risk for VAE. Although this risk is commonly not considered, they each have a reported associated incidence risk of VAE greater than 50%.[1]  The risk of VAE during cesarean deliveries may be highest when the uterus is exteriorized. The risk of VAE in laparoscopic surgery may require an inadvertent opening of vascular channels through surgical manipulation rather than simply resulting from a complication of insufflation.

Both of these surgical procedures have been associated with intraoperative mortality as a direct sequelae of air emboli.[1, 26, 27, 28]  Despite this, the potential for venous air embolism is often ignored in laparoscopic surgery and cesarean delivery.

Iatrogenic creation of pressure gradient

VAE may also result from the iatrogenic creation of a pressure gradient for air entry. Procedures causing such a pressure gradient include lumbar puncture (case report),[1, 23]  peripheral intravenous lines,[1]  and central venous catheters.[2, 3, 22, 29]

Central venous catheterization

VAE is a potentially life-threatening and under-recognized complication of central venous catheterization (CVC), including central lines, pulmonary catheters, hemodialysis catheters[7, 13]  and Hickman (long-term) catheters. As mentioned earlier, the frequency of VAE associated with CVC use ranges from 1 in 47 to 1 in 3000. The emboli may occur at any point during line insertion, maintenance, and/or removal.[3]  A pressure gradient of 5 cm H2O between air and venous blood across a 14-gauge needle allows entry of air into the venous system at a rate of 100 mL/s.[1, 2, 11, 15, 21, 30]  Ingress of 300-500 mL of air at this rate can cause lethal effects.[15, 29]

A number of factors increase the risk of catheter-related VAE, including the following:

  • Fracture or detachment of catheter connections (accounts for 60-90%) [1, 2]
  • Failure to occlude the needle hub and/or catheter during insertion or removal
  • Dysfunction of self-sealing valves in plastic introducer sheaths
  • Presence of a persistent catheter tract following the removal of a central venous catheter
  • Deep inspiration during insertion or removal, which increases the magnitude of negative pressure
  • Hypovolemia, which reduces central venous pressure
  • Upright positioning of the patient, which reduces central venous pressure

Mechanical insufflation or infusion

Mechanical insufflation or infusion is another cause of venous air emboli. Several different procedures involve the use of insufflation, including arthroscopic procedures, CO2 hysteroscopy, laparoscopy, urethral procedures, and orogenital sexual activity during pregnancy (by entering veins of the myometrium during pregnancy and/or after delivery).[1, 22]

Inadvertent infusion of air can also occur during the injection of IV contrast agents for CT,[14, 15, 31]  angiography,[2]  and cardiac catheterization, as well as during cardiac ablation procedures.[22, 32]  Little information exists on the incidence and the complication rate associated with iatrogenic air embolization caused by injections of contrast medium during CT examinations; however, this is a potentially serious complication, which could be catastrophic. Few case reports exist, and all agree that the actual number of such cases is probably higher than reported.

Positive-pressure ventilation

Positive-pressure ventilation during mechanical ventilation places patients at risk for barotrauma and, subsequently, arterial and/or venous air emboli.[1, 3]  Entry of gas into the circulation may result if violation of pulmonary vascular integrity occurs at the same time alveoli rupture from overdistention of the airspaces. This complication can occur in the setting of various diagnoses; however, it is most frequently reported in patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome and in premature neonates with hyaline membrane disease. For these same reasons, SCUBA divers can also have VAE from alveolar distention.

Other causes

VAE has also been described in the setting of blunt and penetrating chest and abdominal trauma, as well as in neck and craniofacial injuries.


United States statistics

Because of the nonspecific nature of the signs and symptoms of VAE, as well as the difficulty of documenting the diagnosis, the true incidence of VAE is not known. Interventional radiology literature reports an incidence of 0.13% during the insertion and removal of central venous catheters despite optimal positioning and techniques.[33] The frequency of VAE with central venous catheters based on a reported case series has also ranged from 1 in 47 to 1 in 3000.[2, 30] The neurosurgical procedure-related complications of VAE have been estimated to be between 10-80%.[2, 21, 22] Reports of VAE in the setting of severe lung trauma have been estimated between 4-14%.[10, 11, 18, 22, 34]

Race-, sex-, and age-related demographics

No racial, sex, or specific age predilection exists for VAE.


The presence of gyriform air on CT scans of the brain appears to be a negative prognostic indicator in venous catheter-related cerebral air embolism.[35] Other potential predictors of unfavorable outcomes in patients with catheter-related VAE include older age of onset, an initial disturbance in consciousness, and the presence of hemparesis.

The potentially life-threatening and catastrophic consequences of VAE) are directly related to its effects on the affected organ system where the embolus lodges. VAE may be fatal and frequently carries high neurologic, respiratory, and cardiovascular morbidity. Catheter-associated VAE mortality is as high as 30%.[2]

In a case series of 61 patients with severe lung trauma, the mortality associated with concomitant VAE was 80% in the blunt trauma group and 48% in the penetrating trauma group.[10, 22, 34]  The morbidity and mortality associated with traumatic VAE, as with nontraumatic VAE, depends not only on associated injuries but also on the volume and rate of air entry, underlying cardiac condition, and the patient's position.

In a retrospective study of patients who were placed in a sitting position for neurosurgery, Ganslandt et al found a low rate of severe complications associated with VAE. In the study, 600 individuals underwent surgery for posterior fossa or cervical spinal disorders, with VAE occurring in 19% of these patients. However, only 3.3% of patients suffered severe VAE-associated complications, such as a drop in the partial pressure of oxygen or in blood pressure. Moreover, surgery had to be stopped in only three patients (0.5%) because the VAE could not be eliminated during surgery. No VAE-associated mortality occurred.[36]




Most cases of venous air embolism (VAE) go unrecognized because their presentations are protean and mimic other cardiac, pulmonary, and neurologic dysfunctions, such as the following (in awake patients)[16, 29] :

  • Acute dyspnea, tachypnea
  • Continuous cough
  • "Gasp" reflex (a classic gasp at times reported when a bolus of air enters the pulmonary circulation and causes acute hypoxemia) [1, 2]
  • Dizziness/lightheadedness/vertigo
  • Nausea
  • Headache, seizures
  • Syncope
  • Substernal chest pain
  • Slurred speech
  • Blurred vision
  • Anxiety/agitation/disorientation/sense of "impeding doom"
  • Ataxia

Because of the lack of specific signs and symptoms of VAE, a high index of suspicion is necessary to establish the diagnosis and institute the appropriate treatment. The number of procedures that place patients at risk for VAE has increased, and these procedures occur across almost all clinical specialties. This must be considered to aid in the confirmation or ruling out of VAE.

If VAE is suspected, obtain the following key historical elements:

  • Recent surgical procedures especially neurosurgical, otolaryngological, cardiovascular, or orthopedic
  • Scuba diving trips and a history of decompression injuries or decompression sickness
  • Blunt or penetrating trauma to the head, face, neck, thorax, and/or abdomen
  • Invasive therapeutic and/or diagnostic procedures such as central venous catheterization; lumbar puncture; high-pressure infusion of medications, blood products, and/or IV contrast agents
  • Patients with hemodialysis access catheters or other indwelling central venous catheters
  • Patients on positive pressure ventilation
  • Peripartum/postpartum orogenital sex (air may enter veins of the myometrium) [4, 7]
  • Ingestion of hydrogen peroxide (rare)

Physical Examination

Many cases of VAE are subclinical and do not result in untoward outcomes. However, severe cases are characterized by cardiovascular collapse and/or acute vascular insufficiency of several specific organs, including, but not limited to, the brain, spinal cord, heart, and skin. As mentioned earlier, the spectrum of effects is largely dependent on the rate and volume of entrained VAE.[1, 6, 15]

Two additional contributing factors include whether or not the patient is spontaneously breathing (yielding negative thoracic pressure) or is under controlled positive-pressure ventilation.[1]  These two factors facilitate the entry of air down a pressure gradient.

The clinical presentation is also dependent on the patient's body position at the time of the event. Generally, if the patient is in a sitting position, gas will travel retrograde via the internal jugular vein to the cerebral circulation, leading to neurologic symptoms secondary to increased intracranial pressure. In a recumbent position, gas proceeds into the right ventricle and pulmonary circulation, subsequently causing pulmonary hypertension and systemic hypotension.[15]

An arterial air embolism can also form if passage of air occurred through a right-to-left shunt, as in the case of a patent foramen ovale.[2, 3]  The arterial air emboli can then lodge in the coronary or cerebral circulation, causing myocardial infarction or stroke.

The following hemodynamic, pulmonary, and neurologic complications primarily result from gas gaining entry into the systemic circulation, occluding the microcirculation and causing ischemic damage to these end organs. Animal studies have also suggested the presence of secondary tissue damage resulting from the release of inflammatory mediators and oxygen free radicals that occur in response to air embolism.

Cardiovascular signs include the following

  • Dysrhythmias (tachyarrhythmias/bradycardias)
  • "Mill wheel" murmur - A temporary loud, machinerylike, churning sound due to blood mixing with air in the right ventricle, best heard over the precordium (a late sign) [2, 11, 15]
  • JVD
  • Hypotension
  • Myocardial ischemia
  • Nonspecific ST-segment and T-wave changes and/or evidence of right heart strain [1, 2, 37]
  • Pulmonary artery hypertension
  • Increased CVP
  • Circulatory shock/cardiovascular collapse

Pulmonary features include the following:

  • Adventitious sounds (rales, wheezing)
  • Tachypnea
  • Hemoptysis
  • Cyanosis
  • Decreased end-tidal carbon dioxide, arterial oxygen saturation, and tension
  • Hypercapnia
  • Increased pulmonary vascular resistance and airway pressures
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Apnea

Neurologic findings include the following:

  • Acute altered mental status
  • Seizures
  • Transient/permanent focal deficits (weakness, paresthesias, paralysis of extremities)
  • Loss of consciousness, collapse
  • Coma (secondary to cerebral edema)

Funduscopic examination may reveal ophthalmologic signs such as air bubbles in the retinal vessels.[18]

Dermatologic evaluation may reveal crepitus over superficial vessels (rarely seen in setting of massive air embolus) and/or livedo reticularis.





Laboratory Studies

Laboratory tests are neither sensitive nor specific for the diagnosis of venous air embolism (VAE). The only indication for obtaining routine laboratory tests is to evaluate the associated end-organ injury resulting from air embolism.

Extravasation of fluid into inflamed tissue may result in laboratory findings consistent with intravascular depletion.

Arterial blood gas samples often show hypoxemia, hypercapnia, and metabolic acidosis secondary to right-to-left pulmonary shunting.

Patients may develop a clinical picture similar to that of classic pulmonary embolism, with hypoxia, decreased PCO2 levels, and respiratory alkalosis.

Imaging Studies

Transesophageal echocardiography 

Transesophageal echocardiography (TEE) has the highest sensitivity for detecting the presence of air in the right ventricular outflow tract or major pulmonary veins. It can detect as little as 0.02 mL/kg of air administered by bolus injection.[1, 2, 5, 11, 15, 18, 22, 23, 38] It also has the added advantage of identifying paradoxical air embolism (PAE), and Doppler allows audible detection of venous air embolism (VAE).

Echocardiography, both TEE and transthoracic echocardiography (TTE), not only allows diagnosis of VAE but also aids in the diagnosis of cardiac anomalies, assessment of volume status, pulmonary hypertension, and cardiac contractility, thereby allowing exclusion of other causes of hypotension, dyspnea, and aiding in further patient management. The use of bedside TTE has become more common in emergency medicine. Its use in a case of VAE described by Maddukuri et al aided in the diagnosis and prompt initiation of appropriate therapy.[39]

Doppler ultrasonography

Precordial Doppler ultrasonography is the most sensitive noninvasive method for detecting venous air emboli. This modality is capable of detecting as little as 0.12 mL of embolized air (0.05 mL/kg).[1, 15, 22, 23, 38]

Transcranial Doppler ultrasonography is another imaging modality commonly used to detect cerebral microemboli.[1]


Chest radiography may be normal or may show gas in the pulmonary arterial system, pulmonary arterial dilatation, focal oligemia (Westermark sign), and/or pulmonary edema.[11, 15, 22]

CT and MRI

Computed tomography (CT) can detect air emboli in the central venous system (especially the axillary and subclavian veins), right ventricle, and/or pulmonary artery. Small (< 1 mL) air defects, usually asymptomatic, occur during 10-25% of contrast-enhanced CT scans; thus, the specificity of this modality is best with large filling defects.[1, 11] CT of the head may show intracerebral air, cerebral edema, or infarction. Chest CT in lung trauma may show underlying conditions such as pneumothorax, hemothorax, or emphysematous blebs that may have led to air embolism but is not helpful for initial diagnosis.[40]

MRI of the brain may show increased water concentration in affected tissues, but this finding alone may not be reliable for the detection of gas emboli.

Other Tests


Electrocardiography (ECG) has a low sensitivity for VAE detection. The findings closely resemble those seen with venous thromboembolism and include tachycardia, right ventricular strain pattern, and ST depression. Transient myocardial ischemia may also occur (severe bradycardia, ST elevation in inferior leads and ST depression in L1 and avL, observed 3 minutes post CVC removal (case report).[1, 37]

End-tidal carbon dioxide (ETCO2)

VAE leads to ventilation/perfusion (V/Q) mismatching and increases in physiologic dead space. This produces a fall in end-tidal CO2 (normal value, < 5). A 2 mm Hg change in end-tidal carbon dioxide (ETCO2) can be an indicator of VAE. However, this finding is nonspecific and may also occur with other disease states, such as pulmonary embolism (PE), massive blood loss, hypotension, circulatory arrest, upper-airway obstruction, mouth breathing, and/or disconnection from monitor. The detector also has a slow response time.[1, 4, 15, 22, 23]

End-tidal nitrogen (ETN2)

End-tidal nitrogen (ETN2) is the most sensitive gas-sensing VAE detection modality; it measures increases in ETN2 as low as 0.04%. Response time is much faster than ETCO2 (30-90 s earlier). However, it does not detect subclinical VAE or decreases with hypotension and may falsely indicate resolution of VAE too prematurely.[1, 41]

Pulse oximetry

Changes in oxygen saturation are late findings with VAE. Measurement is often skewed secondary to exposure to high fraction of inspired oxygen. Like carbon dioxide measuring, it is on the lower end of sensitive measurements.[1]

Pulmonary artery catheter

A pulmonary artery catheter can detect increases in pulmonary artery pressures, which may be secondary to mechanical obstruction or vasoconstriction from the hypoxemia induced by the VAE. However, it is a relatively insensitive/nonspecific monitor of air entrainment (0.25 mL/kg).[1] The lumen catheter is also too small for air to be removed, thereby limiting its function.

Central venous catheter

If a central venous catheter is in place, aspiration of air may help to make the diagnosis. It is also helpful in monitoring central venous pressures, which may be increased in VAE.[1]


Any procedure posing a risk for VAE, if in progress, should be aborted immediately once VAE is suspected.

During central venous catheter (CVC) insertion/removal, one attempt at aspirating air back from line may be useful. Prior to aspiration, the tip of the CVC should be optimally placed 2 cm below the junction of the superior vena cava and the right atrium; however, it may have to be advanced to optimize results.

The placement of a CVC (multiorifice) or PA catheter to attempt aspiration of air, if not already done, has been recommended by several authors.[1, 4, 18, 22, 41] When appropriately placed, it may be possible to aspirate approximately 50% of the entrained air with a right atrial catheter.

Catheter removal should be performed with the patient supine or in a Trendelenburg position while holding his/her breath at the end of inspiration or during a Valsalva maneuver.[2, 14, 22]

In the event of circulatory collapse, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) should be initiated in order to maintain cardiac output. CPR may also serve to break large air bubbles into smaller ones and force air out of the right ventricle into the pulmonary vessels, thus improving cardiac output.[18]

If an arrest is refractory to CPR, an immediate thoracotomy in the emergency department (ED) may be indicated. An emergency thoracotomy with clamping of the hilum of the injured lung is currently recommended for SAE-associated with unilateral lung injury. This prevents continued passage of air into the coronary, cerebral, and other systemic arteries.[11, 18]

Other measures include cross-clamping the aorta, cardiac massage, and aspirating air from the left ventricle, aortic roots, and pulmonary veins.[11]



Emergency Department Care

If venous air embolism (VAE) is known about before presentation to the emergency department (ED), affected patients should be transported in the left lateral decubitus position.[7]

Management of VAE, once it is suspected, includes identification of the source of air, prevention of further air entry (by clamping or disconnecting the circuit), reduction of the volume of air entrained, and hemodynamic support. 

Administer 100% O2 and perform endotracheal intubation for severe respiratory distress or refractory hypoxemia or in a somnolent or comatose patient in order to maintain adequate oxygenation and ventilation. Institution of high-flow (100%) O2 will help reduce the bubble's nitrogen content and therefore size.[1, 4, 7, 10, 11, 15, 23, 30]

Immediately place the patient in the left lateral decubitus (Durant maneuver) and Trendelenburg position. This helps to prevent air from traveling through the right side of the heart into the pulmonary arteries, leading to right ventricular outflow obstruction (air lock). If cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is required, place the patient in a supine and head-down position.[1, 7, 11, 15, 23]

Direct removal of air from the venous circulation by aspiration from a central venous catheter in the right atrium may be attempted. However, no current data support emergency catheter placement for air aspiration during an acute setting of VAE-induced hemodynamic instability.[1, 4, 11, 15]

If necessary, initiate CPR. Besides maintaining cardiac output, CPR may also serve to break large air bubbles into smaller ones and force air out of the right ventricle into the pulmonary vessels, thus improving cardiac output. Even without the need for CPR, this rationale holds for closed-chest massage. Animal studies have shown that the benefit of cardiac massage equals that of left lateral recumbency, as well as intracardiac aspiration of air.[1, 4, 11, 15]

Admit patients to the intensive care unit (ICU), as they may develop cardiopulmonary distress/failure following VAE.

Consider transfer to a hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) facility. Indications for HBOT include neurologic manifestations and cardiovascular instability. Potential benefits include compression of existing bubbles, establishing a high diffusion gradient to speed resolution of existing bubbles, improved oxygenation of ischemic tissues, and lowered intracranial pressure.

Immediate HBOT, once VAE is diagnosed, is recommended; however, prognosis may still be good if therapy is initiated beyond 6 hours of event. Prompt transfer to an HBOT center has been reported to decrease mortality in patients with cerebral air embolism. If transfer is necessary, ground transportation is preferred. If air transportation cannot be avoided, the lowest altitude should be sought.[1, 4, 7, 11, 14, 15, 18, 42]

Supportive therapy should include fluid resuscitation (to increase intravascular volume, increase venous pressure and venous return). There is also some evidence that gas emboli may cause a relative hemoconcentration, which increases viscosity and impairs the already compromised circulation. Hypovolemia is less tolerated than relative anemia. In animal studies, moderate hemodilution to a hematocrit of 30% reduces neurologic damage. Crystalloids may cause cerebral edema; therefore, colloids are preferred for hemodilution.[1, 4, 18]

The administration of vasopressors and mechanical ventilation are two other supportive measures that may be necessary.[1, 4, 41] In a case report of a patient undergoing a craniotomy who showed cardiopulmonary findings suggestive of acute VAE, inotropic treatment with ephedrine seemed to rapidly reverse the cardiopulmonary abnormalities. Early inotropic support of the right ventricle has been recommended if venous air embolism is suspected.[41]

In animal studies, the use of perfluorocarbons (FP-43) has been shown to enhance the reabsorption of bubbles and the solubility of gases, thereby decreasing both neurologic and cardiovascular complications of systemic and coronary VAE. These benefits, however, have not been validated in humans.[1]


The optimal management of VAE is prevention. Minimizing the pressure gradient between the site of potential entry and the right atrium is essential in prevention of VAE.

Potential measures to reduce the risk and/or severity of VAE during neurosurgical interventions include the following[38] :

  • Using a modified semisitting or lounging position for the patient, in which the head is lower than the legs to create a positive pressure in the transverse and sigmoid sinuses
  • Avoiding hyperventilation in the sitting position
  • Using a sitting position, under strict protocol, for procedures in patients with known patent foramen ovale 

Measures to reduce the risk of air embolism during mechanical ventilation and central line insertion/removal/manipulation should be taken. With regard to these two procedures, the following interventions should be implemented:

  • Prevent barotraumas by minimizing airway pressures during mechanical ventilation
  • Avoid positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP); it impairs hemodynamic performance, does not protect against air embolism, and probably increases the risk of paradoxic emboli
  • Avoid and treat hypovolemia prior to catheter placement
  • Occlude the needle hub during catheter insertion/removal
  • Maintain all connections to the central line closed/locked when not in used (use Luer-Lok syringes for blood draws from catheters)
  • During catheter insertion/removal, place the patient in the supine position with head lowered (insertion site should be 5 cm below right atrium); if the patient is awake he or she may assist by holding his or her breath or by doing a Valsalva maneuver, both of which can increase the central venous pressure

Questions & Answers


What is venous air embolism (VAE)?

What are the preconditions for venous air embolism (VAE) to occur?

What is the pathophysiology of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What causes venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of surgical procedures in the etiology of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What the incidence of venous air embolism (VAE) due to cesarean delivery and laparoscopy surgery?

Which procedures can cause venous air embolism (VAE) due a pressure gradient for airway entry?

What is the role of central venous catheterization in the etiology of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What are the risk factors for a catheter-related venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of mechanical insufflation or infusion in the etiology of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of positive-pressure ventilation in the etiology of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of trauma in the etiology of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the prevalence of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the prognosis of venous air embolism (VAE)?


What are the signs and symptoms of venous air embolism (VAE)?

Which clinical history findings suggest venous air embolism (VAE)?

Which physical findings are characteristic of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What are the cardiovascular signs of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What are the pulmonary signs and symptoms of venous air embolism (VAE)?

Which neurologic findings are characteristic of venous air embolism (VAE)?

Which funduscopic findings are characteristic of venous air embolism (VAE)?


What are the differential diagnoses for Venous Air Embolism?


What is the role of lab tests in the workup of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of TEE in the workup of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of Doppler ultrasonography in the workup of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of chest radiography in the workup of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of CT and MRI in the workup of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of end-tidal nitrogen (ETN2) testing in the workup of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of ECG in the workup of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of end-tidal carbon dioxide (ETCO2) testing in the workup of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of pulse oximetry in the workup of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of pulmonary artery catheter in the workup of venous air embolism (VAE)?

What is the role of central venous catheter in the diagnosis of venous air embolism (VAE)?

How is venous air embolism (VAE) treated in the presence of a catheter?


How is venous air embolism (VAE) treated in the emergency department (ED)?

What is included in supportive care for venous air embolism (VAE)?

How is venous air embolism (VAE) prevented during neurosurgical interventions?

How is venous air embolism (VAE) prevented during mechanical ventilation and central line insertion/removal/manipulation?