What is a pulmonary embolism?
Sometimes a blood clot will travel to the lungs from deep veins in the legs or, rarely, from veins in other parts of the body. When a blood clot is lodged into a pulmonary artery it is called a pulmonary embolism.
A pulmonary embolism can be life threatening because it blocks the flow of blood to the lungs. Prompt treatment can reduce the risk of death. Taking measures to prevent blood clots in your legs will help protect you against pulmonary embolism. Learn more about deep vein thrombosis here.
Occasionally, pulmonary embolism is caused by substances other than blood clots, such as:
- Fat from the marrow of a broken long bone
- Part of a tumor
- Air bubbles
What are the symptoms of pulmonary embolism?
Some people aren’t aware of a deep vein clot until they have signs and symptoms of a pulmonary embolism.
Signs and symptoms include:
- Unexplained shortness of breath
- Pain with deep breathing
- Coughing up blood
- Rapid breathing and a fast heart rate
What imaging is done to diagnose pulmonary embolism?
There are multiple imaging exams used to diagnose pulmonary embolism. Your doctor may order one or more of the following:
- Chest x-ray
- CT scan
What interventions/treatments can be performed for pulmonary embolism?
The goal of treating a pulmonary embolism is to keep the clot from getting bigger and to prevent new clots from forming. Delayed treatment could possibly result in serious complications or death.
Medications are one option for treating a pulmonary embolism.
- Anticoagulants (blood thinners) are drugs used to prevent existing clots from enlarging and new clots from forming while your body works to break up the clots. These medications may be given intravenously or by mouth.
- Thrombolytics (clot dissolvers) may also be used. While clots usually dissolve on their own, sometimes thrombolytics given through the vein can dissolve clots quickly. Because these clot-busting drugs can cause sudden and severe bleeding, they usually are reserved for life-threatening situations.
Minimally invasive options:
- A pulmonary embolism can be treated by a procedure called pulmonary thrombectomy. This involves threading a small catheter through the artery in order to retrieve the clot.
- An inferior vena cava filter is usually placed, as well. This will keep more clots from traveling to the lungs.