A Pulmonary Embolism (PE) is the blockage of an important blood vessel or artery in the lung caused by a blood clot. Often these clots are not lethal but can have negative side effects.
What Causes a Pulmonary Embolism
The blood from the veins of your legs empties into the inferior vena cava – a big vein which itself empties into the right side of your heart. From your heart, this venous or de-oxygenated blood is send to your lungs through the pulmonary artery. So, if there are any abnormal blood clots in your blood stream from the lower limbs (deep venous thrombosis), they usually lead to a blockade of the blood vessel in your lungs via your heart. The blood clot (thrombus) is called embolus once it starts moving in your blood vessels with the flow of blood. Besides clots, arteries to the lung could be blocked by malignant tumors, amniotic fluid, or fat from a broken bone released into the bloodstream.
If a clot blocks oxygen from reaching the rest of the body for long enough you can die.
While the leg is the most common place a clot to form, they also form in the arm or pelvis veins and travel to the lungs.
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PEs can be caused by strokes, heart disease, and birth control. Those who are over 70, smoke regularly or could be considered obese are at a risk of getting a PE.
During a pregnancy and the first 6 weeks after birth, women are at a higher risk for PEs, especially if they had a C-section.
Complications from the surgeries like to brain, hips, leg, or stomach surgery can lead to immobilization, infection and dehydration. These types of surgeries also increase your risk of new blood clot formation leading to pulmonary embolism.1
Pancreatic, ovarian, breast, and lung cancer and their treatment heightens the likelihood of getting a clot.
Five to eight percent of the population is more susceptible to a PE due to their family history. They affect an estimated 900,000 Americans a year.2
Symptoms of PE
DVT (Deep Venous Thrombosis) symptoms include swollen legs or veins in the leg, warmth in the swollen leg, pain in the leg only felt when standing.
Inactivity from staying in bed or sitting still for long periods of time can lead to a PE.
Blood clots that form in veins near the skin’s surface are unlikely to cause similar damage.
Symptoms of PE include:
- Sudden shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Irregular heart beat
- Coughing resulting in bloody mucus
It's important to make sure the symptoms are due to a PE and not conditions with similar symptoms.
Diagnosing a Pulmonary Embolism
- Clots are often found using ultrasound tests to monitor blood flow.
- A lung pulmonary ventilation or perfusion scan might be performed to monitor the flow of oxygen and blood throughout the lungs.3
- Sometimes a process known as a pulmonary angiogram is used which is when dye is injected into the chest which is then x-rayed to find clots highlighted by the dye.
- A Computerized Tomography (CT) scan is also used to take x-rays of the lung to show where the damage has been done.
- Tests must be thorough to ensure that the PE has in fact occurred instead of other symptoms.
Treatment for a Pulmonary Embolism
Once caught, prompt treatment leads to higher survival rates. Thirty percent of patients will die if their PEs are untreated during the first few hours after it occurs.
- Blood thinners: Blood thinners are often subscribed to patients to shrink clots and prevent future cloth growth. In an emergency, they will be first injected into the body using an IV to dissolve the clot.
- Surgery: Clots can also be removed in a surgery known as an embolectomy, a minimally invasive procedure if necessary.
- Prevention: Medications are often prescribed to prevent the formation of future clots.A vena cava filter might be inserted into a central vein as well to prevent future clots from traveling. However, they do not prevent clot formation.
Prevention: Medications are often prescribed to prevent the formation of future clots.A vena cava filter might be inserted into a central vein as well to prevent future clots from traveling. However, they do not prevent clot formation.
Graduated compression stockings worn up to the knee might also be recommended by a doctor to reduce swollen legs and maintain proper blood flow over time, up to 2 years
- Duration: DVT treatment might last up to 6 months depending on factors such as surgery. Those who previously had clots will need longer treatment.
Prognosis for people who had a Pulmonary Embolism
Side effects from the DVT (that leads to a PE) include swelling, pain, discoloration, and scaling of the skin affecting approximately 50% of PE patients.
Enjoying an active lifestyle minimizes your risk for a PE. In addition, alcohol and caffeine should be avoided. You should also monitor your diet and vitamin K using our helpful tool.
Blood pressure and signs of swollen legs should be monitored through regular medical appointments.
30% of those with a previous PE are at risk for its recurrence as a chronic illness.
Citations (view all)
- 1. Geerts WH, Pineo GF, Heit JA, Bergqvist D, Lassen MR, Colwell CW, Ray JG. Prevention of venous thromboembolism: the Seventh ACCP Conference on Antithrombotic and Thrombolytic Therapy. Chest. 2004; 126: 338S–400S. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15383478?dopt=Abstract
- 2. "Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) / Pulmonary Embolism (PE) — Blood Clot Forming in a Vein" CDC. Accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/dvt/index.html
- 3. "Pulmonary Embolism" MayoClinic - Diseases and Conditions. Accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pulmonary-embolism/basics/complications/con-20022849