Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage of an artery in the lungs. The embolism prevents blood and nourishment from getting to a specific area of the lungs. This may lead to the death of lung tissue in this area. Damage to the lungs may make it difficult for the lungs to work properly. In severe cases, a pulmonary embolism can lead to death.

  • Causes

    An embolism is caused by a lump of material, called an embolus, that is floating in the blood. An embolus can be a blood clot, air bubble, a piece of fat, bone marrow, or tumor tissue. The embolus travels from its original location and passes through larger blood vessels until it gets stuck in a smaller blood vessel. In this case, the embolus is trapped in an artery of the lungs.

    The embolus in a
    pulmonary embolism
    is usually a blood clot. It most often starts in a vein in the legs or pelvis.

  • Definition

    A pulmonary embolism is a blockage of an artery in the lungs. The embolism prevents blood and nourishment from getting to a specific area of the lungs. This may lead to the death of lung tissue in this area. Damage to the lungs may make it difficult for the lungs to work properly. In severe cases, a pulmonary embolism can lead to death.

    Pathway of Pulmonary Embolism
    factsheet image
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  • Diagnosis

    Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor may order the following tests:

    • Arterial blood gas study
      —to check oxygen levels and lung function
    • EKG
      —to assess the electrical activity of the heart
    • D-Dimer blood test—to detect the presence of a clot

    • If you have a family history of blood clots, and had blood clots in the past for no apparent reason, your doctor may do additional blood tests. The tests will look for possible inherited defects in your clotting system, such as:

      • Factor V Leiden mutation (seen in up to 40% of cases)
      • Increased factor VIII

    Imaging tests create pictures of internal structures. Imaging tests may include:

    • Chest x-ray
      —to look for signs of dead tissue; the pulmonary embolism cannot be seen on the chest x-ray
    • Lung perfusion scan—a test that compares breathing and circulation in all areas of the lungs
    • CT scan of the chest

    • Pulmonary
      angiogram
      —to see blood vessels in the lungs
    • Magnetic resonance (MR) angiography
    • Echocardiography
      —to examine the size, shape, and motion of the heart


    If you are diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism, follow your doctor's
    instructions
    .

  • Prevention

    Prevention of pulmonary embolism means preventing clots from forming.

    You can help prevent clots with a healthy lifestyle. Suggestions include:


    • Eat a
      healthful diet
      that is low in saturated fat and rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

    • Begin a safe
      exercise program
      with the advice of your doctor.
    • Walk or move your legs to break up long periods of sitting.

    • If you smoke, talk with your doctor on ways you can
      quit
      .
    • Unless you are on a fluid-restricted diet, be sure to drink lots of water.

    People at high risk of developing blood clots can do the following:

    • Take medication if your doctor recommends it. Anticoagulant drugs are most commonly used.
    • Wear elastic stockings if suggested by your doctor. They can help improve circulation in your legs.
    • Walk or move your legs to break up long periods of sitting. If you are traveling, get up and walk every few hours.

  • Risk Factors

    Factors that increase your chance of developing a pulmonary embolism include:

    • Blood clot in a deep vein of a leg or the pelvis
    • Increased levels of clotting factors in the blood
    • Prolonged bed rest
    • Major surgery, especially after pelvic surgery, knee replacement, or heart surgery
    • Injury to a vein in a leg or the pelvis
    • Fractures of the hip
      or thigh bone
    • Certain blood disorders
    • Prolonged sitting, such as during a long trip
    • Pregnancy or postpartum period
    • Smoking
    • Obesity
    • Inflammatory bowel disease

    • Autoimmune disorder, such as
      immune thrombocytopenic purpura
      ,
      polyarteritis nodosa
      ,
      or
      polymyositis
    • Cancer
    • Taking certain medications, such as birth control pills or antipsychotics

  • Symptoms

    The symptoms of a pulmonary embolism vary depending on the size and location of the blockage. The area of lung affected by the lack of blood will also affect the symptoms. Pulmonary embolism may cause:

    • Shortness of breath that starts suddenly for no obvious reason

    • Chest pain, especially when breathing or coughing (it can mimic a
      heart attack
      )
    • Feeling faint or lightheaded
    • Cough
      , sometimes with bloody phlegm
    • Rapid heartbeat
    • Rapid breathing
    • Anxiety
    • Feeling of impending doom

  • Treatment

    Treatment depends on the size and severity of the clot. Emergency treatment and hospitalization may be needed.

    Emergency treatment for shock may include IV fluids, medications, and oxygen therapy.

    Treatment includes medication, and in some cases, surgery.