What causes venous air embolism (VAE)?

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

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