What is a pulmonary
A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that occurs in the
It can damage part of the lung due to restricted blood
flow, decrease oxygen levels in the blood, and affect other organs as well.
Large or multiple blood clots can be fatal.
The blockage can be life-threatening. According to the
Mayo Clinic, it results in the death of one-third of people who go undiagnosed or untreated. However, immediate
emergency treatment greatly increases your chances of avoiding permanent lung
What causes a
Blood clots can form for a variety of reasons.
Pulmonary embolisms are most often caused by deep vein thrombosis, a condition
in which blood clots form in veins deep in the body. The blood clots that most
often cause pulmonary embolisms begin in the legs or pelvis.
What are the risk factors
for a pulmonary embolism?
Factors that increase your risk of developing deep vein
thrombosis and pulmonary embolism include:
- a family history of embolisms
- fractures of the leg or hip
- hypercoagulable states or genetic blood clotting
disorders, including Factor V Leiden, prothrombin gene mutation, and elevated
levels of homocysteine
- a history of heart attack or stroke
- major surgery
- a sedentary lifestyle
- age over 60 years
- taking estrogen or testosterone
What are the symptoms
of a pulmonary embolism?
Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism depend on the size of
the clot and where it lodges in the lung.
The most common symptom of a pulmonary embolism is
shortness of breath. This may be gradual or sudden.
Other symptoms of a pulmonary embolism include:
- clammy or bluish skin
- chest pain that may extend into your arm, jaw, neck,
- irregular heartbeat
- rapid breathing
- rapid heartbeat
- spitting up blood
- weak pulse
If you notice one or more of these symptoms,
especially shortness of breath, you should seek medical attention immediately.
How is a pulmonary
In some cases, a pulmonary embolism can be difficult
to diagnose. This is especially true if you have an underlying lung or heart
condition, such as emphysema or high blood pressure.
When you visit your doctor for your symptoms, they’ll
ask about your overall health and any pre-existing conditions you may have.
Your doctor will typically perform one or more of the
following tests to discover the cause of your symptoms:
- chest X-ray: This standard, noninvasive test allows
doctors to see your heart and lungs in detail, as well as any problems with the
bones around your lungs.
- electrocardiography (ECG): This test measures your
heart’s electrical activity.
- MRI: This scan uses radio waves and a magnetic
field to produce detailed images.
- CT scan: This scan gives your doctor the ability to see
cross-sectional images of your lungs. A special scan called a V/Q scan may be
- pulmonary angiography: This test involves making a
small incision so your doctor can guide specialized tools through your veins.
Your doctor will inject a special dye so that the blood vessels of the lung can
- duplex venous ultrasound: This test uses radio waves to
visualize the flow of blood and to check for blood clots in your legs.
- venography: This is a specialized X-ray of the veins of
- specific blood test known as the D-dimer
How is a pulmonary
Your treatment for a pulmonary embolism depends on the
size and location of the blood clot. If the problem is minor and caught early,
your doctor may recommend medication as treatment. Some drugs can break up
Drugs your doctor may prescribe include:
- anticoagulants: Also called blood thinners, the drugs heparin and warfarin prevent new clots from forming in your blood. They can save
your life in an emergency situation.
- clot dissolvers (thrombolytics): These drugs speed up
the breakdown of a clot. They’re typically reserved for emergency situations
because side effects may include dangerous bleeding problems.
Surgery may be necessary to remove problematic clots,
especially those that restrict blood flow to the lungs or heart. According to
the Mayo Clinic, some surgical procedures your doctor may use in the case of a
pulmonary embolism include:
- vein filter: Your doctor will make a small incision,
then use a thin wire to install a small filter in your inferior vena cava. The
vena cava is the main vein that leads from your legs to the right side of your
heart. The filter prevents blood clots from traveling from your legs to your
- clot removal: A thin tube called a catheter will
suction large clots out of your artery. It isn’t an entirely effective method
because of the difficulty involved, so it’s not always a preferred method of
- open surgery: Doctors use open surgery only in
emergency situations when a person is in shock or medications aren’t working to
break up the clot.
After you receive proper treatment for a pulmonary
embolism at the hospital, you’ll be advised to treat the underlying cause. This
is typically deep vein thrombosis.
You’ll most likely start taking anticoagulant
medications, such as heparin and warfarin, to prevent blood clots from
returning. You may also need to use compression stockings (they are similar to
really tight socks) or another device to prevent clots from forming in your
Regularly exercising your legs is also a key component
of therapy after a pulmonary embolism. Your doctor will give you complete instructions on how
to care for yourself to prevent future blood clots.
Types of pulmonary