What is thrombolysis?

Thrombolysis treats blood clots and prevents serious and life-threatening complications. It involves using medication to break up or dissolve a blood clot that has formed inside a blood vessel. Blood clots can grow, break loose, and cut off blood supply to organs and tissues. This can cause a stroke, heart attack, and other serious problems. Your doctor may use thrombolysis as an emergency or scheduled treatment, depending on your condition. 

Thrombolysis is a minor procedure, but it still involves some risk. It is only one method used to treat blood clots. Discuss all of your options with your doctor to understand which options are right for you. 

Types of thrombolysis

The types of thrombolysis include:

  • Catheter-based thrombolysis involves an incision in your groin through which your doctor inserts a catheter. Your doctor guides the catheter to the clot site and injects medication or uses special instruments to break up the clot.
  • Intravenous (IV) thrombolysis involves injecting medication through an IV. The medication travels to the site of the clot to dissolve it or break it up.

Other procedures that may be performed 

Your doctor may also perform an angiography along with your thrombolysis. An angiography is an imaging procedure that allows your doctor to take a picture (an angiogram) of your blood vessels.

Why is thrombolysis performed? 

Your doctor may recommend thrombolysis to treat: 

  • Blood clots in catheters or grafts, including dialysis catheters, central venous catheters, and bypass grafts
  • Blood clots in peripheral arteries, arteries that supply the arms and legs with blood
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is a clot that develops in a vein in the legs or pelvis. A DVT can break off and travel through the body and cause blockage of a lung artery (pulmonary embolism)
  • Heart attack, which occurs when a clot develops or lodges in an artery that supplies the heart muscle. It causes heart muscle to die from lack of oxygen
  • Pulmonary embolism (PE), which is a clot that lodges in an artery in the lung
  • Stroke, which occurs when a clot develops or lodges in an artery in the brain (ischemic stroke)

Who performs thrombolysis?

The following specialists commonly perform thrombolysis:

  • Interventional cardiologists specialize in diagnosing and treating heart disease using catheter procedures and radiological imaging.
  • Neuroradiologists specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases and conditions of the brain, spine, head, neck and nerves using radiation and other imaging technologies.
  • Neurosurgeons specialize in the medical and surgical care of people with diseases and conditions of the brain and nervous system.
  • Vascular and interventional radiologists specialize in the treatment of blood vessel conditions and other diseases using catheter-based procedures and imaging techniques.
  • Vascular surgeons specialize in the surgical treatment of blood vessel diseases.

Other specialists who perform thrombolysis include:

  • Cardiac surgeons specialize in the surgical treatment of conditions of the heart and its blood vessels. Cardiac surgeons may also be known as cardiothoracic surgeons.
  • Cardiologists specialize in diagnosing and treating conditions of the heart and its blood vessels.
  • Critical care medicine doctors care for patients with acute, life-threatening illnesses or injuries.
  • Pulmonologists specialize in the medical care of people with breathing problems and diseases and conditions of the lungs.
  • Thoracic surgeons specialize in the surgical treatment of diseases of the chest, including the blood vessels, heart, lungs and esophagus. Thoracic surgeons may also be known as cardiothoracic surgeons.

How is thrombolysis performed?

Your thrombolysis will be performed in a hospital. Where and how your doctor performs your thrombolysis will depend on the type of clot you have and whether or not you are in an emergency situation. If you are not having an emergency, your doctor may schedule your thrombolysis.

Thrombolysis is a minor procedure that involves the following steps: