Fat embolism syndrome pathophysiology

Jump to navigation Jump to search

Fat embolism syndrome Microchapters


Patient Information


Historical Perspective




Differentiating Fat embolism syndrome from other Diseases

Epidemiology and Demographics

Risk Factors


Natural History, Complications and Prognosis


History and Symptoms

Physical Examination

Laboratory Findings


Chest X Ray



Echocardiography or Ultrasound

Other Imaging Findings

Other Diagnostic Studies


Medical Therapy


Primary Prevention

Secondary Prevention

Cost-Effectiveness of Therapy

Future or Investigational Therapies

Case Studies

Case #1

Fat embolism syndrome pathophysiology On the Web

Most recent articles

Most cited articles

Review articles

CME Programs

Powerpoint slides


American Roentgen Ray Society Images of Fat embolism syndrome pathophysiology

All Images
Echo & Ultrasound
CT Images

Ongoing Trials at Clinical Trials.gov

US National Guidelines Clearinghouse

NICE Guidance

FDA on Fat embolism syndrome pathophysiology

CDC on Fat embolism syndrome pathophysiology

Fat embolism syndrome pathophysiology in the news

Blogs on Fat embolism syndrome pathophysiology

Directions to Hospitals Treating Fat embolism syndrome

Risk calculators and risk factors for Fat embolism syndrome pathophysiology

Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1] Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Feham Tariq, MD [2]


Fat embolism syndrome (FES) is the presence of fat globules in the circulation post traumatic insult which can lodge into the small sized capillaries in the lung, brain and skin leading to devastating clinical manifestations. The two widely accepted theories which explain the pathophysiology of FES are mechanical and biochemical theory. The mechanical theory proposes that there is mechanical obstruction by fat cells from the bone marrow in the end-capillaries after trauma. Biochemical theory attributes the clinical manifestations of FES to the pro inflammatory effect of fat emboli.


Two major theories have been described to explain the pathophysiology of fat embolism syndrome(FES):[1][2]

  • Mechanical theory
  • Biochemical theory

Mechanical theory

The theory proposes that there is mechanical obstruction by fat cells from the bone marrow in the end-capillaries after trauma.

Biochemical theory

This theory attributes the clinical manifestations of FES to the pro inflammatory effect of fat emboli.[3][4][5]

  • Tissue lipases break down the fat in the bone marrow, forming high levels of the following toxic intermediaries:[6][7]
    • Free fatty acids:

Free fatty acids are released into the circulation after hydrolysis and deposit into the end capillaries of the lung, manifesting as acute respiratory distress syndrome.[8][9]

  • Cytokines:

Patients with FES are also found to have high levels of certain cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor alpha, phospholipase A2, interleukin 1 and 6.[10][11]

  • C-reactive proteins:

The elevation in c-reactive proteins is responsible for lipid agglutintion in FES which results in microvasculature obstruction and stagnant blood flow.

Pathogenesis of clinical manifestations

Following pathological sequence of events occur after an orthopedic trauma such as long bone fracture.

Microvascular obstruction and free fatty acids(FFA) mediated endothelial injury leading to proinflammatory cytokine release(IL-1,IL-6,TNF-alpha)
Acute respiratory distress syndrome

Arterial hypoxemia and cerebral vascular injury from FFA intermediates
Encephalopathy and focal neurological deficits

Vascular stasis,microinfarction and FFA mediated endothelial damage leading to rupture of thin-walled capillaries

Elevated tissue factor, excess thrombin and fibrin generation, aggregation of platelets and consumption of coagulation products
DIC, thrombocytopenia and anemia



  • There is no genetic association of FES.

Gross pathology

There is no characteristic gross pathology associated with fat embolism.

Microscopic pathology

Hematoxylin and eosin staining shows the following changes in the lungs, kidneys and brain:[12]


Immunohistochemical staining shows the following changes:


  • Hematoxylin and eosin staining shows fat deposits in the glomeruli.


  • Fat droplets are seen in vessels.
Microscopic picture of fat embolism.By Boris L Kanen, Ruud JLF Loffeld - Pancreatitis with an unusual fatal complication following endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreaticography: a case report. Journal of Medical Case Reports. 2008;2:215. doi:10.1186/1752-1947-2-215, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4979542


Displaced femoral midshaft fracture. Case courtesy of Dr Rajesh Shanklesha, Radiopaedia.org, rID: 29523


  1. Parisi DM, Koval K, Egol K (2002). "Fat embolism syndrome". Am J Orthop (Belle Mead NJ). 31 (9): 507–12. PMID 12650535.
  2. Robert JH, Hoffmeyer P, Broquet PE, Cerutti P, Vasey H (1993). "Fat embolism syndrome". Orthop Rev. 22 (5): 567–71. PMID 8316420.
  3. Husebye EE, Lyberg T, Røise O (2006). "Bone marrow fat in the circulation: clinical entities and pathophysiological mechanisms". Injury. 37 Suppl 4: S8–18. doi:10.1016/j.injury.2006.08.036. PMID 16990064.
  4. Estèbe JP (1997). "[From fat emboli to fat embolism syndrome]". Ann Fr Anesth Reanim. 16 (2): 138–51. PMID 9686075.
  5. Hofmann S, Huemer G, Kratochwill C, Koller-Strametz J, Hopf R, Schlag G; et al. (1995). "[Pathophysiology of fat embolisms in orthopedics and traumatology]". Orthopade. 24 (2): 84–93. PMID 7753543.
  6. Nixon JR, Brock-Utne JG (1978). "Free fatty acid and arterial oxygen changes following major injury: a correlation between hypoxemia and increased free fatty acid levels". J Trauma. 18 (1): 23–6. PMID 621762.
  7. Baker PL, Pazell JA, Peltier LF (1971). "Free fatty acids, catecholamines, and arterial hypoxia in patients with fat embolism". J Trauma. 11 (12): 1026–30. PMID 4330876.
  8. Schnaid E, Lamprey JM, Viljoen MJ, Joffe BI, Seftel HC (1987). "The early biochemical and hormonal profile of patients with long bone fractures at risk of fat embolism syndrome". J Trauma. 27 (3): 309–11. PMID 3560274.
  9. Meininger G, Hadigan C, Laposata M, Brown J, Rabe J, Louca J; et al. (2002). "Elevated concentrations of free fatty acids are associated with increased insulin response to standard glucose challenge in human immunodeficiency virus-infected subjects with fat redistribution". Metabolism. 51 (2): 260–6. PMID 11833059.
  10. Kao SJ, Yeh DY, Chen HI (2007). "Clinical and pathological features of fat embolism with acute respiratory distress syndrome". Clin Sci (Lond). 113 (6): 279–85. doi:10.1042/CS20070011. PMID 17428199.
  11. Prakash S, Sen RK, Tripathy SK, Sen IM, Sharma RR, Sharma S (2013). "Role of interleukin-6 as an early marker of fat embolism syndrome: a clinical study". Clin Orthop Relat Res. 471 (7): 2340–6. doi:10.1007/s11999-013-2869-y. PMC 3676609. PMID 23423626.
  12. . doi:10.1042/CS2007001. Missing or empty |title= (help)