What is Pulmonary Embolism?

cardiogram Heart Conditions 101, Medical Conditions, Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a condition in which one or more blood clots block the arteries of the lungs, resulting in reduced oxygen flow to the affected area. Although it affects the lungs, it is considered a cardiovascular disease. In fact, it's one of the most common cardiovascular diseases, affecting around 900,000 U.S. adults every year.

The most common cause of pulmonary embolism is deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a condition in which blood clots form in the veins of the legs or pelvis. Other causes include fat deposits, air bubbles, or foreign objects that enter the bloodstream and travel to the lungs. Pulmonary embolisms can also occur spontaneously without an underlying cause. And, if left untreated, a pulmonary embolism can be fatal.

Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism

The most common symptom of pulmonary embolism is shortness of breath. This may be accompanied by chest pain, coughing up blood, or an irregular heartbeat. If the blockage is large, it can cause sudden death.

Diagnosis of Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism is often diagnosed using a combination of medical history, physical examination, and imaging tests. Medical history and physical examination can help to rule out other conditions that may cause similar symptoms. Imaging tests such as a chest x-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, or echocardiogram can also be used to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment of Pulmonary Embolism

The goal of treatment for pulmonary embolism is to prevent the clot from getting larger and to prevent new clots from forming. Treatment typically includes anticoagulant medications such as heparin or warfarin (Coumadin). In some cases, thrombolytic therapy may also be used to dissolve the clot.

If the embolism is large or if there is a risk of recurrent embolism, surgery may be necessary. This can involve the placement of a filter in the vena cava. It can also involve the removal of the clot through a catheterization procedure known as pulmonary thrombectomy.

The long-term outlook for someone who has had a pulmonary embolism depends on the severity of the embolism and any underlying conditions that may have contributed to its development. The good news is that with proper treatment, most people make a full recovery. However, recurrent pulmonary embolisms are possible and can be life-threatening. Those with underlying conditions that increase the risk of developing blood clots (such as DVT) may need to take anticoagulant medication long-term to prevent future episodes.

What if I Have Pulmonary Embolism Symptoms?

If you have symptoms of pulmonary embolism, seek immediate medical attention. Your doctor will likely perform an array of tests to confirm a pulmonary embolism diagnosis. From there, adequate treatment will be provided.

Pulmonary Embolism Prevention

Several measures can be taken to prevent pulmonary embolism, including:

  • Wearing graduated compression stockings or intermittent pneumatic compression devices to encourage blood flow and prevent blood clots from forming in the legs
  • Using medications such as aspirin or heparin to thin the blood and prevent clotting
  • Avoid long periods of immobility, such as during extended flights or car rides. Getting up and moving around every few hours can help keep the blood flowing and prevent clots from forming.
  • Elevating the legs when possible to encourage blood flow

While prevention is always the best way to stay well, with proper treatment, many people make a full recovery from pulmonary embolism and go on to live normal, healthy lives.