Hyperbaric treatment of air or gas embolism: current recommendations

Undersea Hyperb Med. 2019;46(5):673-683.


Gas can enter arteries (arterial gas embolism, AGE) due to alveolar-capillary disruption (caused by pulmonary over-pressurization, e.g. breath-hold ascent by divers) or veins (venous gas embolism, VGE) as a result of tissue bubble formation due to decompression (diving, altitude exposure) or during certain surgical procedures where capillary hydrostatic pressure at the incision site is subatmospheric. Both AGE and VGE can be caused by iatrogenic gas injection. AGE usually produces stroke-like manifestations, such as impaired consciousness, confusion, seizures and focal neurological deficits. Small amounts of VGE are often tolerated due to filtration by pulmonary capillaries; however VGE can cause pulmonary edema, cardiac "vapor lock" and AGE due to transpulmonary passage or right-to-left shunt through a patient foramen ovale. Intravascular gas can cause arterial obstruction or endothelial damage and secondary vasospasm and capillary leak. Vascular gas is frequently not visible with radiographic imaging, which should not be used to exclude the diagnosis of AGE. Isolated VGE usually requires no treatment; AGE treatment is similar to decompression sickness (DCS), with first aid oxygen then hyperbaric oxygen. Although cerebral AGE (CAGE) often causes intracranial hypertension, animal studies have failed to demonstrate a benefit of induced hypocapnia. An evidence based review of adjunctive therapies is presented.

Keywords: air embolism; arterial gas embolism; hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Publication types

  • Practice Guideline

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Altitude
  • Arteries
  • Atmospheric Pressure
  • Decompression / adverse effects
  • Decompression Sickness / complications
  • Diving / adverse effects
  • Embolism, Air / diagnosis
  • Embolism, Air / etiology
  • Embolism, Air / therapy*
  • Foramen Ovale, Patent / complications
  • Humans
  • Hyperbaric Oxygenation / methods*
  • Intracranial Embolism / etiology
  • Intracranial Embolism / therapy
  • Patient Positioning / methods
  • Veins