Bullet emboli in the pulmonary and systemic arteries

Ann Surg. 1977 Mar;185(3):318-20. doi: 10.1097/00000658-197703000-00012.


Bullet embolization into the systemic and the pulmonary circulation is a rare complication of penetrating wounds. From 1966 to 1975 10 patients with bullet embolus (5 in the systemic and 5 in the pulmonary arteries) were treated at Grady Memorial Hospital. The embolization occurred shortly after the initial injury in all cases except for two in which it occurred within two weeks. The patients with bullet embolus were either asymptomatic or some of those with systemic arterial embolization had symptoms and signs of acute arterial occlusion and some of the patients with pulmonary embolization had symptoms and signs of pulmonary embolus. The diagnosis was suspected in all cases because there was no wound of exit and because of the plain regional xray studies, the missile was not present in the expected area. The diagnosis was strengthened when, on screening xray studies of the rest of the body, the missile was found in a remote area and it was confirmed by arteriography. Embolectomy was performed in all cases of both groups except one with pulmonary embolus, and all patients did well and have no residual disability related to the embolus. This study suggests that bullet embolization to the systemic or pulmonary circulation occasionally occurs following bullet wound injury. The diagnosis should be strongly suspected when there is no exit wound and when roentgenographically the missile is not found in the suspected area. In such cases, screening xray pictures of the rest of the body should be obtained, and, if the bullet is found in a remote area, arteriography should be performed to confirm the diagnosis. Embolectomy should be done as soon as feasible and it usually affords very good results.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Arteries / injuries
  • Female
  • Foreign-Body Migration / surgery
  • Heart Injuries / complications
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pulmonary Embolism / etiology*
  • Pulmonary Embolism / surgery
  • Thromboembolism / etiology*
  • Thromboembolism / surgery
  • Wounds, Gunshot / complications*