Purpose: To determine the clinical consequences of air embolism occurring during insertion of central venous catheters.
Materials and methods: A computer search of our interventional radiology database revealed that 11,583 central venous catheters were inserted between January 1, 1995 and August 1, 2000: 7,178 were nontunneled and 4,404 were tunneled. Air embolism was reported to have occurred in 15 patients. Air embolization was recognized by audible air aspiration during catheter insertion or by fluoroscopic visualization of air within the right atrium or pulmonary artery. The radiology reports and medical records of these 15 patients were reviewed.
Results: All 15 patients had an air embolism occur during insertion of a tunneled central venous catheter. These included eight Ash catheters, five chest wall ports, one Tesio catheter, and one Pheres-Flow catheter. Four patients remained asymptomatic. Six patients had mild symptoms that quickly resolved with supplemental oxygen. Four had moderate symptoms that also resolved with supplemental oxygen. One patient died acutely as a result of the air embolism.
Conclusion: Air embolism is a rare but potentially fatal complication of central venous catheter procedures. In our series, all occurred during insertion of a tunneled catheter through a peel-away sheath. The administration of supplemental oxygen was an effective treatment in the majority of patients.