What is Embolization?

Embolization is a minimally invasive medical procedure used to block one or more blood vessels or abnormal vascular channels. By injecting small particles or liquids into the blood vessel, embolization is used to cut off or reduce blood flow to an abnormal area, such as a tumor or vascular malformation. Cutting off the blood supply eliminates the growth of abnormal tissues and can help treat certain conditions or diseases. Embolization is most commonly performed by interventional radiologists but can also be done by other specialists like vascular surgeons.

How is Embolization Performed?

An embolization procedure involves accessing the blood vessel, usually through the groin area. An interventional radiologist first makes a small incision and inserts a thin catheter into the femoral artery. Guided by real-time imaging like fluoroscopy, the catheter is threaded through the blood vessels until its tip is near the target site. Catheters come in an array of sizes and shapes to reach different parts of the body.

Once in position, tiny embolic agents are injected through the catheter into the target blood vessel. Common embolic agents include gelfoam,tiny plastic or metal coils, alcohol, and embospheres or embobeads (polyvinyl alcohol particles). As the embolic agents flow into the vessel, they eventually block it by either clotting the vessel or packing it tightly. By blocking the blood flow into the abnormality, its growth and symptoms can be stopped or reduced.

The procedure usually takes one to two hours to complete depending on the complexity. Most patients go home the same day after monitoring for a few hours. Mild to moderate discomfort is common for a few days as the treated area heals. Repeated treatments may be needed to fully eliminate larger abnormalities.

Applications of Embolization

Some common uses of Embolization procedures include:

1. Uterine fibroid embolization - To treat painful uterine fibroids without surgery. By blocking the blood vessels that feed the fibroids, symptoms like heavy bleeding can be significantly reduced.

2. Brain aneurysm embolization - Coils or special liquids are placed in brain aneurysms, small bulge or weak areas in blood vessel walls, to prevent rupture and bleeding in the skull.

3. Tumor embolization- Cuts off blood supply to some benign and cancerous tumors prior to surgery or other treatments to shrink them. Common sites include the liver where tumors are blocked before surgical removal.

4. Pelvic congestion syndrome embolization- Blockage of dilated pelvic veins that cause chronic pelvic pain.

5. Varicose vein embolization- A minimally invasive option for large, painful varicose veins instead of traditional vein stripping surgery.

6. Hemangioma embolization- Performed on enlarging hemangiomas, abnormal clusters of blood vessels, in infants to stop further growth.

7. Nosebleed embolization- To block arteries in the nose that frequently bleed using small gelatin or plastic spheres. Stops recurrent nosebleeds.

Risks and Benefits of Embolization

As a minimally invasive procedure, embolization has several advantages over traditional open or laparoscopic surgery. It does not require large incisions, general anesthesia or significant hospital stay so recovery is faster. Risks of surgery like bleeding, infection and surgical complications are also avoided.

Some risks of embolization include post-procedure pain, puncture site bleeding or infection from catheter insertion, and non-target embolization. There is a small risk the embolic agent could migrate to the wrong vessel. Allergic reaction to contrast dye is also possible. Success rates for most applications are high though the abnormality may initially shrink and later recur if not fully eliminated. Permanent side effects are generally unusual but could include tissue injury if too much of the blood supply is blocked.

Endovascular embolization is a valuable technique to treat various abnormal blood vessels and vascular lesions. By shutting off their blood supply in a minimally invasive manner, symptoms can often be significantly improved or resolved without major surgery. As techniques and devices continue improving, embolization promises to take on an even greater role in managing common vascular diseases.


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