In 1875, blood clots in the heart were found to cause strokes. It was established that blood clots were not only capable of developing in arteries and veins, but inside the heart as well. A blood clot in the heart--also referred to as cardiogenic embolism--can be fatal. Blood clots can travel to the brain, cutting off blood supply and causing a stroke. A stroke coming from a blood clot in the heart is classified as an ischemic stroke. The result is death of brain cells, swelling and subsequent brain damage.
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Blood clots in the heart are caused by atrial fibrillation--a condition where the heart's upper chambers beat irregularly and rapidly, causing blood to pool and eventually clot. Congestive heart failure can also lead to cardiac clot formation. With this condition, the pumping ability of the heart is compromised and blood moves slowly, allowing clots to form. A blood clot in the heart may also be caused by infection of the heart valves or after surgical implantation of an artificial valve. Furthermore, any time the heart has been damaged--such as after a heart attack--there is an increased risk of developing a blood clot.
Signs and Symptoms
When the blood clot is inside the heart, there are no obvious signs and symptoms a person will exhibit due to the clot itself. It is when the clot breaks off, leaves the heart and travels to the brain that the effects of the clot become significantly noticeable. The signs and symptoms of stroke related to blood clots vary depending on area of the brain affected. There is also possibility of multiple areas being damaged. In most cases, strokes happen suddenly and brain damage occurs in a matter of minutes. Common signs and symptoms of stroke due to a cardiac blood clot include numbness or paralysis--often on one side of body--headache, loss of balance, trouble seeing and hearing as well as difficulties speaking, writing and thinking.
Diagnostic techniques for finding blood clots in the heart include transesophageal echocardiography or TEE and cardiac magnetic resonance imaging or cardiac MRI. A TEE offers an advantage over traditional echocardiograms by better evaluating the heart's structures and producing clearer images. According to Dr. Abdulla M. Abdulla of theheartsite.com, TEE is highly accurate in locating blood clots inside the chambers of the heart. Cardiac MRI offers a non-invasive method of testing and produces images in real-time to identify potential clots.
Preventing blood clots in the heart from developing involves effectively treating the underlying conditions that cause them. These conditions include atrial fibrillation, heart failure, heart attack and valvular disorders. According to the American Heart Association, risk of these afflictions can be lowered by going in for regular checkups and speaking with your doctor about taking preventative measures against cardiac disease--such as diet, exercise and healthy lifestyle behavior. If a heart attack does occur, antiplatelet drugs--namely aspirin and clopidogrel--can prevent blood clots from forming after the event. People with heart valve disorders or artificial valves may consider taking antibiotics before getting any dental procedures to help prevent valve infection and subsequent clot formation.
Blood-thinning drug therapies used in treating cardiac blood clots include heparin and warfarin. According to Loyola University professor of neurology, Michael J. Schneck, M.D., these anticoagulant medications are considered first-line interventions in treating blood clots in the heart. Heparin acts by preventing growth of new or existing clots and is administered via injection or intravenous drip. The key advantage this drug has over other blood thinners is its ability to enhance the body's natural clot-dissolving ability. Warfarin--commonly known by its brand name Coumadin--treats clots by lowering the amount of vitamin K in the body. Vitamin K plays an important role in the clotting process by helping clots form. Warfarin is administered orally and is available in various tablet dosages.