Lymphatic air embolism: A new hypothesis regarding the pathogenesis of neonatal systemic air embolism

T. N. Booth, S. A. Royal, B. A. Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Objective. Neonatal systemic air embolism (NSAE) has been thought to result from introduction of air into the pulmonary veins through hypothesized alveolar-capillary fistula. The objective of this paper is to reassess the distribution of intravascular air visualized radiographically in this entity. Based on these data, an alternative theory for the pathogenesis of NSAE is proposed. Materials and methods. Four cases from our institutions and 21 additional reviewable published radiographs of NSAE were evaluated for the presence and location of intravascular air. Nonparametric statistical analysis was performed to determine if the predominance of intravascular air was venous or arterial in location, and to determine the presence or absence of pulmonary interstitial emphysema (PIE), pneumothorax, pneumomediastinum, and pneumopericardium. Results. Isolated systemic venous air was present significantly more often than isolated systemic arterial air (p < 0.0005). In addition, the presence of isolated right-sided cardiac air was found significantly more often than air within left heart chambers alone (p < 0.0005). PIE in patients with NSAE was found to be statistically more prevalent than pneumomediastinum or pneumopericardium, though similar in prevalence to pneumothorax. Conclusion. Our data support the hypothesis that intravascular air in NSAE is predominantly venous in location. PIE was found to be a very common associated finding in NSAE. Based on our current knowledge of pulmonary lymphatics, radiographic anatomy, and the lymphatic location of PIE, we propose that air within the pulmonary lymphatic system (PIE) gains access to the systemic venous system via lymphatic ducts, which results in the clinical entity NSAE. This readily explains the venous predominance of air in NSAE.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S220-S229
JournalPediatric radiology
Issue numberSUPPL. 1
StatePublished - 1995

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging


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