What is a Pulmonary Embolism?
A pulmonary embolism is the result of one or more arteries in the lungs becoming suddenly blocked. In most cases a blood clot is the cause of the blockage. These blood clots usually form in the veins deep inside muscles in a condition known as deep vein thrombosis. This happens in leg and pelvic veins but can occur in the arms. The blood clots can travel from these areas and get lodged in the lungs. Pulmonary embolism can be life threatening especially of the clot is large. Prompt medical treatment can lower the potential risks.
What are Pulmonary Embolism Signs and Symptoms?
Common symptoms of a pulmonary embolism include:
- Shortness of breath- This symptom will occur suddenly and gets worse with exertion.
- Chest pains- Chest pain resulting from pulmonary embolism has been likened to a heart attack. This pain may radiate into the jaw, neck, shoulders and arms. It will get worse with exertion, eating, coughing or bending.
- Coughing- Coughing associated with pulmonary embolism may be dry or productive of bloody sputum or foam.
Other symptoms can include pain in legs and swelling, lightheadedness and fainting or feelings of anxiety.
How is a Pulmonary Embolism Diagnosed?
A pulmonary embolism diagnosis requires testing to rule out other causes or conditions with similar symptoms. Heart attack, anxiety, heart or lung disease can easily be confused for a pulmonary embolism. After a review of medical history doctors will check for deep vein thrombosis. Other tests a doctor may order include:
- Blood tests- determine the levels of clotting substance D-dimer in blood.
- Imaging- Chest xray, CT scan or MRI rules out causes of symptoms such as pneumonia or an enlarged heart.
- Pulmonary embolism ecg – Measures the heart’s electrical activity to rule out possible heart attack.
What is Pulmonary Embolism Treatment?
Blood clots can be broken up using medications or surgical procedures. In an emergency situation drugs called thrombolytics can quickly dissolve clots. These can cause severe and sudden bleeding the are reserved for life threatening cases. Other times a catheter may be threaded through the groin and into the clot in the lung to remove it. Blood thinning medications (anti-coagulates) such as warfarin or heparin can be used. If these medications do not work or a patient is unable to take blood thinners a vein filter may be used to prevent clots from reaching the lungs.
What are Pulmonary Embolism Causes?
Blood clots that result from deep vein thrombosis are the main cause of pulmonary embolism. There are several factors that increase the risk for DVT or a pulmonary embolism, such as:
- Inherited blood clotting conditions
- Major surgery
- Hip or leg fractures (fat that enters the blood stream from the marrow of a broken bone can contribute to a clot)
- Sitting or standing for an extended amount of time, such as a long airplane, car or train ride
- Long periods of being confined to bed (extended hospital stay or recovery)
Preventing Pulmonary Embolism
There are several steps that can be taken to lessen the risks of a pulmonary embolism:
- Taking anticoagulants.
- Taking breaks from sitting if on a long trip.
- Wear compression or support stockings.
- Physical activity, especially after major surgery.
- Stay hydrated- dehydration can contribute to the likelihood of blood clots.