How to Stop Arterial Bleeding Before It’s Too Late
Arterial bleeding, also known as pulsatile bleeding, is the most dangerous type of blood loss, and knowing how to stop it can quite literally mean the difference between life and death in an emergency.
There are three primary types of bleeding: venous bleeding, capillary bleeding, and the aforementioned arterial bleeding.
- Capillary bleeding comes from the capillaries, the small blood vessels connecting the veins and arteries.
- Venous bleeding comes from the veins, which are smaller and more numerous than arteries—and is deoxygenated blood that has circulated out to the body and is on its return trip to the heart.
- Arterial bleeding comes from the fewer and larger arteries and is more voluminous and higher-pressure oxygenated blood, as it is being pumped out to the body from each contraction of the heart. As such, it can be identified by its rapid spurts in time with the heartbeat and its brighter red color due to its oxygenated status.
Arterial bleeding can result in rapid blood loss and requires immediate medical intervention.
How to Stop Arterial Bleeding
When an arterial bleed sets in, you can’t simply wait for emergency services to arrive. This is a life-threatening bleeding situation. You have to take action immediately to prevent catastrophic blood loss. An arterial bleeding victim can bleed out in as little as 2 minutes if swift action isn’t taken.
Step 1: Apply Direct Pressure
While wearing latex gloves, place direct pressure over the wound using a sterile dressing. As you apply pressure and wait for the bleeding to stop, have someone call for emergency services. If you have to call 911 yourself, just make sure to continue applying firm pressure while dialing. Place the phone in speaker mode so you won’t need to hold it while speaking.
Step 2: Elevate Any Extremities
If the victim is bleeding from the arm or leg, lay them flat and elevate the extremity above their heart. If possible, the limb should remain elevated until help arrives. This allows blood to circulate back to the heart more effectively.
Step 3: Cover the Bleeding Wound
If the patient is able to apply pressure themselves, have them hold the dressing firmly against the wound while you secure it in place with roller gauze. Hemostatic gauze works better than standard gauze on arms and legs, as it is impregnated with agents that speed the process of blood clotting, helping to seal injured vessels. If you’re unable to secure the dressing in place, just continue applying pressure until help arrives.
Step 4: Monitor the Bleeding
Keep a close watch to see if the bleeding stops. Donot lift the gauze or dressing to check for visible bleeding; just examine the dressing to see if blood is seeping through. If it bleeds through, you may need to add additional gauze. If the bleeding slows to a light trickle, you can place a sterile bandage over it. If the blood flow stops completely, you can wash it with mild soap and water. However, arterial bleeding is often the most difficult to control, meaning that additional intervention may be required.
Step 5: Apply a Tourniquet
If uncontrolled bleeding continues, you may need to apply a tourniquet. Commercial tourniquets are ideal for this. Place the tourniquet about 2 inches or more above the wound. Turn the windlass until the bleeding stops. Make a note of what time the tourniquet was applied, as tourniquets should never be left on for more than two hours. Finally, remain with the patient (or remain in place) until emergency services arrive. For more information, see our guide to How to Apply a Tourniquet.
Additional Tips for Stopping Arterial Bleeding
When trying to stop an arterial bleed, it’s also important to keep the following essentials in mind:
- If a bleeding control kit is available, this should be your first line of defense. It contains everything you need to treat severe bleeding on the spot, including dressings, gauze, and a tourniquet that’s safe and easy for lay users.
- Do not use hemostatic gauze on the head, chest, or abdomen. For these types of injuries, standard gauze is best. Hemostatic gauze should be reserved for limbs.
- Do not use an improvised tourniquet unless you have no other choice (i.e. you have uncontrolled rapid blood loss and no commercial tourniquet available). Improvised tourniquets can cause serious harm when used incorrectly. Refer to our guide to How to Make an Improvised Tourniquet for more information.
How to Identify Arterial Bleeding
Arterial bleeding is usually easy to identify as the bleeding is more dramatic than with capillary or venous bleeding. The arteries have higher blood pressure than the veins and carry blood away from the heart muscle, so arterial blood tends to spurt out in rhythmic pulses. And because it’s an oxygen-rich form of blood, arterial blood is also noted for its bright red color. Venous blood, by comparison, tends to be a much darker red.
In addition, arterial bleeding usually results from severe trauma or deep penetrating injuries. This is due to the fact that arteries are protected deeper below the skin than veins. You won’t encounter arterial bleeding with a simple cut or scrape. Anytime someone has been injured badly enough to experience arterial bleeding, you’re dealing with a medical emergency.
Be Prepared to Control Bleeding at Its Worst
Sometimes emergencies catch you off guard, but the best way to control arterial bleeding is to prepare for it ahead of time. Invest in a reliable STOP THE BLEED® kit, learn the fundamentals of how to operate a tourniquet, and know that you’re always prepared for the unexpected. If you work or conduct business in any type of active or high-risk environment, this type of preparedness can be especially invaluable.
Arterial bleeding is no laughing matter, but with prompt action, you can prevent an emergency from becoming a disaster.