It’s a scenario that is often dramatized in suspense movies and television shows, but nevertheless is a risk that some patients face – air bubbles can pose a serious hazard to patient health when they are present in the bloodstream. Massachusetts patients may become victims of an air embolism if their doctors fail to catch this problem after surgery or a medical procedure.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information defines a dangerous air embolism as a large bubble or series of bubbles that enter a vein or artery. Such an occurrence can end up blocking a patient’s heart, lungs or brain, restricting blood supply and leading to a heart attack, stroke or respiratory failure. Most air embolisms aren’t anything to worry about, since they are usually small and dissipate into the bloodstream. Large air or gas bubbles, on the other hand, can be deadly.

What causes an air embolism? According to Healthline, an air bubble may enter a vein or artery through an IV, syringe or catheter. It may happen when a patient is hooked up to a breathing ventilator after lung trauma, due to the force of the machine pushing air into damaged blood vessels. Air embolisms most frequently occur during brain surgery – as many as 80 percent of all brain surgeries result in air embolisms. However, doctors usually detect this problem before it becomes a danger.

Air embolisms are, fortunately, quite rare. After a surgical or medical procedure, patients should be aware of the signs of an embolism. They may include a blue hue to the skin, chest pain, difficulty breathing, confusion, muscle or joint pain, low blood pressure or unconsciousness. If any of these symptoms occur, immediate medical attention is necessary.