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Limb embolism and ischaemia

Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Peripheral arterial disease article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

See the separate Peripheral Arterial Disease related article.

Acute limb ischaemia is most often due to either acute thrombotic occlusion of a previously partially occluded, thrombosed arterial segment, or to embolus from a distant site. Without surgical revascularisation, complete acute ischaemia leads to extensive tissue necrosis within six hours. The effects of sudden arterial occlusion depend on the state of collateral supply1 .

  • The collateral supply in the leg is usually inadequate unless there has been pre-existing occlusive disease.

  • The subclavian artery has many collateral vessels so that occlusion of a major artery does not necessarily make an upper limb non-viable.

Critical limb ischaemia is a condition with chronic ischaemic at-rest pain, ulcers, or gangrene in one or both legs, attributable to objectively proven arterial occlusive disease. Critical limb ischaemia implies chronicity and should be distinguished from acute limb ischaemia2 .

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  • Embolism: for example, left atrial thrombus in patients in atrial fibrillation, mural thrombus after myocardial infarction, prosthetic and abnormal heart valves, aneurysm (aorta, femoral, or popliteal), proximal atheromatous stenosis, malignant tumour, or foreign body.

  • Thrombosis: most cases of leg ischaemia result from the presence of thrombus at sites of atherosclerotic narrowing; presentation of ischaemia may be:

    • Acute, as a result of emboli from rupture of proximal atherosclerotic plaque or thrombus.

    • Chronic, usually resulting from gradual extension of thrombus with development of collateral vessels.

  • Trauma.

  • Raynaud's syndrome.

  • Compartment syndrome: this occurs when perfusion pressure falls below tissue pressure in a closed anatomical space; causes include:

    • Orthopaedic (tibial or forearm fractures).

    • Vascular: haemorrhage, phlegmasia caerulea dolens (massive thrombosis in the major veins of the limbs, causing gross swelling that obstructs arterial flow).

    • Soft tissue injury (prolonged limb compression, crush injury, burns).

  • Congenital causes of early-onset leg ischaemia - eg, aortic hypoplasia.

  • Ischaemia of the arm is most often embolism of cardiac origin, but may also be due to damage to the subclavian artery or thoracic outlet syndrome.


  • History and examination should identify the severity of ischaemia and whether it is likely to be embolic or thrombotic.

  • Important features to differentiate include rapidity of onset of symptoms, features of pre-existing chronic arterial disease, potential source of embolus and the state of pulses in the contralateral limb.

  • The affected part becomes pale, pulseless, painful, paralysed, paraesthetic and 'perishing with cold' ('the 6 Ps')3 .

  • The onset of fixed mottling of the skin implies irreversible changes.

  • The limb may be red when dependent, leading to a misdiagnosis of inflammation - eg, gout or cellulitis.

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  • Hand-held Doppler ultrasound scan may help demonstrate any residual arterial flow.

  • Blood tests

    • FBC (ischaemia is aggravated by anaemia).

    • ESR (inflammatory disease - eg, giant cell arteritis, other connective tissue disorders).

    • Glucose (diabetes).

    • Lipids.

    • Thrombophilia screen.

  • If diagnosis is in doubt, perform urgent arteriography.

  • Investigations to identify the source of embolus:

    • ECG.

    • Echocardiogram.

    • Aortic ultrasound.

    • Popliteal and femoral artery ultrasound.


  • Urgent admission - this is an emergency and often requires urgent open surgery or angioplasty. Objective sensory loss requires urgent treatment. Heparinisation is needed immediately (this may double the limb salvage rate), and provide analgesia.

  • Ischaemia following trauma and acute thrombosis may require urgent reconstruction.

  • The limb must be checked for evidence of compartment syndrome and, if necessary, a fasciotomy should be performed.

  • If the occlusion is embolic, the options are surgical embolectomy (Fogarty balloon embolectomy catheter) or local intra-arterial thrombolysis:

    • If embolectomy with a Fogarty catheter fails, an on-table angiogram is performed and bypass graft or intraoperative thrombolysis considered. Routine intraoperative angiography for arterial thromboembolectomy has been shown to be beneficial4 .

    • After successful embolectomy, anticoagulation with heparin is needed to prevent recurrence. Many surgeons postpone heparin for six hours after surgery to reduce the risk of a haematoma5 .

  • If the occlusion is due to thrombotic disease the options are intra-arterial thrombolysis, angioplasty or bypass surgery. If due to thrombosis of an arterial graft, then thrombolysis is the first step.

  • Intra-arterial thrombolysis6 :

    • For patients with acute arterial emboli or thrombosis, treatment with immediate systemic anticoagulation with unfractionated heparin has been recommended. This should be followed by long-term oral anticoagulation in patients with embolism7 .

    • An arteriogram is performed and the catheter advanced into the thrombus. Streptokinase, urokinase or tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) should be combined with heparin and thrombolysis continued for 48 hours or until clot lysis1 .

    • Fibrinolysis usually takes between 6 and 72 hours to achieve clot lysis and so patients with limb-threatening ischaemia are not candidates for local fibrinolysis, and require emergent embolectomy.

    • Local thrombolytic therapy is therefore reserved for patients with non-life-threatening limb ischaemia.

    • Thrombolysis can be accelerated by using pulse spray through a multiple side-hole catheter, aspiration thrombectomy (debulking thrombus aspiration) and by using a high dose over a shorter time.

    • Complications of thrombolysis are haemorrhage, pericatheter thrombosis, haemorrhagic stroke and distal embolisation.

    • The contra-indications are critical ischaemia with neurological deficit, and irreversible ischaemic changes.

    • Recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (the preferred agent): up to 60-90% of thromboses will show clinically useful lysis. However, there is a high rate of reocclusion1 .

    • Following successful lysis, correction of the underlying problem, possibly including angioplasty or operation, may be required.

  • If a limb is irreversibly ischaemic, amputation will be required.

Other management

  • Reduction in the rate of deterioration of underlying cardiovascular disease includes regular exercise, smoking cessation, treating hypertension and hyperlipidaemia, and improving diabetes control.

  • Management of associated and underlying problems: treat anaemia or polycythaemia, cardiac disease.

  • Low-dose aspirin or clopidogrel. Warfarin if otherwise indicated.

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors have been shown to reduce morbidity and mortality due to cardiovascular disease in patients with peripheral arterial disease by 25%.

  • Statins to reduce total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

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  • Reperfusion injury may cause more damage than the initial ischaemia:

    • Neutrophils migrate into the reperfused tissue, causing injury.

    • Limb swelling due to increased capillary permeability may cause a compartment syndrome.

    • Leakage from damaged cells may cause acidosis and hyperkalaemia (leading to cardiac arrhythmias) and myoglobinaemia (leading to acute tubular necrosis).

  • Chronic pain syndromes: acute complete ischaemia can lead to peripheral nerve injury.


  • Complete acute ischaemia will lead to extensive tissue necrosis within six hours unless the limb is surgically revascularised5 .

  • The mortality associated with acute ischaemia remains high, as thrombosis or embolism is not infrequently a pre-terminal event in patients dying from other causes, such as heart failure.

  • A Cochrane review of surgery versus thrombolysis found no overall difference in limb salvage or death at one year between initial surgery and initial thrombolysis. Thrombolysis may be associated with a higher risk of ongoing limb ischaemia and haemorrhagic complications including stroke. The higher risk of complications must be balanced against risks of surgery in each person8 .

  • Surgical treatment of acute limb ischaemia has a 30-day mortality rate of 15-25%, mainly because of related complications9 .


  • Long-term anticoagulation for potential causes of thromboembolism.

  • Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease; secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Dr Mary Lowth is an author or the original author of this leaflet.

Further reading and references

  1. Acute limb ischaemia; Surgical Tutor
  2. Ballard JL, Mills JL Sr; Surgical management of critical limb ischemia. Tech Vasc Interv Radiol. 2005 Dec;8(4):169-74.
  3. Peripheral arterial disease; NICE CKS, September 2015 (UK access only)
  4. Ebner H, Zaraca F, Randone B; The role of intraoperative angiography in arterial thromboembolectomy for non-traumatic acute upper limb ischaemia. Chir Ital. 2004 May-Jun;56(3):345-50.
  5. Callum K, Bradbury A; ABC of arterial and venous disease: Acute limb ischaemia. BMJ. 2000 Mar 18;320(7237):764-7.
  6. Kessel DO, Berridge DC, Robertson I; Infusion techniques for peripheral arterial thrombolysis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004;(1):CD000985.
  7. Clagett GP, Sobel M, Jackson MR, et al; Antithrombotic therapy in peripheral arterial occlusive disease: the Seventh ACCP Conference on Antithrombotic and Thrombolytic Therapy. Chest. 2004 Sep;126(3 Suppl):609S-626S.
  8. Darwood R, Berridge DC, Kessel DO, et al; Surgery versus thrombolysis for initial management of acute limb ischaemia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Aug 10;8:CD002784. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD002784.pub3.
  9. Giannini D, Balbarini A; Thrombolytic therapy in peripheral arterial disease. Curr Drug Targets Cardiovasc Haematol Disord. 2004 Sep;4(3):249-58.

Article History

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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