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What happens if a bone fragment enters your bloodstream?

Having a bone fragment enter your bloodstream is a rare but potentially dangerous medical condition. Bone fragments can come from a variety of sources, such as a broken bone, joint replacement surgery, or bone biopsy. The consequences depend on the size and location of the bone fragment, but can range from minor to life-threatening.

How do bone fragments enter the bloodstream?

There are a few ways a bone fragment can end up circulating in the blood:

  • Fracture – When a bone breaks, the fractured ends can release small chips or spicules into nearby soft tissue and blood vessels. This most often occurs with fractures that break through the cortex and extend into the bone marrow.
  • Surgery – Orthopedic procedures like joint replacements or bone grafting intentionally or accidentally introduce bone pieces into the surgical site. These fragments can be displaced into the circulation.
  • Biopsy – Needle biopsies of bone marrow can cause bleeding and leakage of bone material into surrounding vasculature.
  • Osteomyelitis – Chronic bone infections like osteomyelitis can cause erosion and destruction of bone, releasing debris.
  • Malignancy – Cancers that start in or metastasize to bone can also lead to bone destruction and passage of cancerous cells and particles into the blood.

In most cases, the bone fragments are very small, often just microscopic pieces or bone marrow contents. Larger fragments over 1 cm are infrequent.

What happens when a bone fragment enters the blood?

Once inside a blood vessel, a bone fragment gets carried along in the circulation until it gets stuck somewhere and blocks flow. This occurs because the shape and rigidity of bone prevents it from smoothly traversing the smaller vessels and capillary beds.

The fragment will eventually reach arteries or arterioles that are too narrow for it to pass through. At this point, it can:

  • Lodge in place and completely obstruct blood flow. This causes ischemia (inadequate blood supply) to the tissues fed by the blocked vessel.
  • Partially obstruct flow, which limits but doesn’t stop perfusion.
  • Temporarily obstruct flow before shifting into a wider space and restoring circulation.

The consequences depend on the location and duration of the vascular occlusion. Critical areas like the lungs, heart, brain, and major limbs are the most vulnerable to blockages.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Signs and symptoms of an intravascular bone fragment vary based on the location but can include:

  • Respiratory symptoms – Shortness of breath, low oxygen levels, chest pain from a fragment lodged in the pulmonary arteries of the lungs.
  • Cardiac symptoms – Chest pain that mimics a heart attack if the fragment obstructs a coronary artery.
  • Neurologic symptoms – Weakness, numbness, difficulty speaking from a fragment blocking blood flow to part of the brain.
  • Abdominal symptoms – Pain, nausea, vomiting from obstructed blood flow to the intestines or liver.
  • Extremity symptoms – Coldness, pallor, numbness, pain in an arm or leg if a major artery is blocked.

The onset of symptoms is typically abrupt if a large vessel becomes occluded. Smaller downstream blockages may cause gradual ischemic changes.

How is it diagnosed?

If embolization is suspected, the following diagnostic tests may be ordered:

  • CT scan – CT imaging can sometimes visualize the density of a bone fragment within a blood vessel.
  • MRI – MRI may also be able to detect the location of an intravascular bone fragment based on its signal characteristics.
  • Angiogram – Invasive angiography involves injecting contrast dye to highlight the arterial system. This can directly show the site of obstruction.
  • Echocardiogram – An echocardiogram can identify blockages within the heart or pulmonary arteries.
  • Lab tests – Blood work is done to look for indicators of organ damage from impaired blood flow.

Identifying the source of the fragment, such as a fracture site, also helps establish the diagnosis.

What are the possible complications?

Potential complications of an intravascular bone fragment include:

  • Infarction – Prolonged occlusion of a major artery can infarct (destroy) tissue supplied by the vessel. Examples include pulmonary infarcts, myocardial infarction of the heart, and stroke from cerebrovascular compromise.
  • Organ failure – Infarctions may culminate in life-threatening organ failure, like respiratory failure, heart failure, kidney failure.
  • Shock – Obstructing a major vessel can cause hemorrhagic shock from drastically reduced blood flow.
  • Aneurysm – The blocked fragment can damage the arterial wall, leading to formation of a balloon-like aneurysm that can subsequently rupture and bleed.
  • Abscess – An infected bone fragment can transfer organisms into the bloodstream and cause septic emboli with abscess formation.

Any location can be affected, but blockages involving the brain, heart, lungs, liver, intestines have the most risk of serious adverse outcomes. Complications are most likely with large bone fragments above 1 cm in size.

What is the treatment?

Once embolization is diagnosed, prompt treatment is needed to restore blood flow and minimize permanent tissue damage. Treatment options may include:

  • Anticoagulation – Blood thinners like heparin help prevent clot formation around the lodged fragment and further arterial obstruction.
  • Thrombolysis – Fibrinolytic drugs like tPA can help dissolve clots that form secondary to the primary bone obstruction.
  • Interventional radiology – Less invasive techniques like catheter-directed thrombolysis and mechanical thrombectomy allow removal of the fragment.
  • Surgery – Open vascular surgery may be required for large fragments not amenable to other treatments. This involves locating and extracting the fragment.
  • Amputation – Non-viable extremities may need amputation if the limb ischemia is irreversible.

After the embolus is removed, supportive care of damaged end organs and treatment of complications are needed. This may involve kidney dialysis for renal failure or drugs to support the circulatory system.

What is the prognosis?

The outlook depends on how quickly blood flow can be restored and the extent of infarction to downstream tissues. Small peripheral emboli often carry a good prognosis if treated promptly. However, large central obstructions with major organ involvement have a high mortality risk even with treatment.

Some statistics on prognosis include:

  • Pulmonary emboli – Overall mortality up to 18% for central blockages. Higher for delayed treatment.
  • Coronary emboli – Mortality around 25%. Major complications like heart failure occur in 61% of cases.
  • Cerebral emboli – Mortality rate 13-50%. Major stroke, disability in 60% of those affected.
  • Visceral emboli – Overall mortality around 27%. Bowel infarction occurs in 70% of mesenteric emboli.
  • Peripheral emboli – Very low mortality if treated (

The table below summarizes the prognosis based on embolus location:

Location Mortality Rate Major Complications
Pulmonary Up to 18% Respiratory failure, pulmonary infarction
Coronary Around 25% Heart failure, myocardial infarction
Cerebral 13-50% Stroke, permanent neurologic deficit
Visceral Around 27% Bowel infarction, kidney/liver failure
Peripheral Limb ischemia, possible amputation

So in summary, the prognosis depends on both the location and how quickly blood flow can be restored through treatment. The peripheral extremities tend to have the best outlook, while pulmonary, cardiac, cerebral, and visceral emboli have higher risks of mortality and lasting deficits.

How can bone fragment embolization be prevented?

Several preventive measures can help reduce the risk of bone fragments entering the circulation:

  • Careful fracture stabilization with internal fixation helps immobilize fragments and prevent displacement.
  • Meticulous surgical technique when operating on or near bone to avoid introducing fragments.
  • Thorough irrigation and lavage of surgical sites to wash out any small bone pieces.
  • Use of intraoperative imaging to check for retained fragments.
  • Careful handling of bone biopsy samples to prevent particulate contamination of the biopsy tract.
  • Treatment of osteomyelitis and bone metastases to reduce bone destruction.
  • Avoiding maneuvers that increase venous pressure and blood return from surgical sites, which can dislodge fragments.

Postoperatively, early mobilization and physical therapy helps prevent venous stasis and secondary clot formation around any fragments.

When pathologic fractures or surgery involving major bone disruption is required, prophylactic placement of an inferior vena cava (IVC) filter can catch fragments before they reach the heart and lungs. However, filters have their own risks such as filter migration, clot formation, and insertion complications.


The takeaway points about bone fragment embolization include:

  • It is an uncommon but serious condition where bone pieces enter the circulation, usually from trauma, surgery, infection, or cancer.
  • Fragments travel through blood vessels until they eventually obstruct flow to critical organs like the lungs, heart, brain.
  • This can cause major complications like organ infarction, shock, and even death if not treated promptly.
  • Diagnosis involves imaging to locate the fragment. Treatments aim to rapidly restore blood flow around the obstruction.
  • Outcomes depend on embolus location and how quickly it is removed. Overall mortality may be 13-50% for central emboli.
  • Prevention centers around meticulous surgical technique, fracture stabilization, and avoiding conditions that create bone debris.

While rare, intravascular embolization of bone fragments is a medical emergency requiring prompt recognition and management to avoid permanent end-organ damage or death. Anyone undergoing orthopedic procedures involving significant bone disruption should be monitored closely afterward for signs of arterial obstruction. With prompt treatment, even large bone emboli can sometimes be extracted before they culminate in major cardiovascular compromise or stroke.