Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage of one or more arteries in the lungs. It is most often caused by a blood clot that traveled to the lungs from another part of the body. Blood clots usually form in the veins of the legs or arms, but can dislodge and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs. While a pulmonary embolism is not usually fatal, it is a complication of deep vein thrombosis and can be life threatening.

Causes of a Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism can affect anyone, but certain factors can increase the risk of developing blood clots. They may include:

  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Prolonged bed rest or travel
  • Family history of blood clotting disorders
  • A history of cancer or chemotherapy treatment
  • Trauma or injury to a vein
  • Surgery
  • Smoking
  • Oral contraceptive use
  • Hormone replacement therapy

Symptoms of a Pulmonary Embolism

Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism vary depending on the severity of the blockage, but may include:

  • Sudden shortness of breath
  • Sharp pain in the chest, arm, shoulder, neck or jaw
  • Cough
  • Clammy skin
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Excessive sweating
  • Leg swelling, usually in one leg
  • Anxiety
  • Fever

Diagnosis of a Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism is difficult to diagnose and can be detected through diagnostic testing that may include:

  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • Lung scan
  • Blood tests
  • Pulmonary angiogram
  • Ultrasound
  • MRI

Treatment of a Pulmonary Embolism

Treatment for a pulmonary embolism is usually based in a hospital due to the need for monitoring vital signs. The severity of the clot and the medical condition of the patient will determine the length of the hospital stay. Treatment options for a pulmonary embolism may include:

  • Anticoagulant (blood thinning) medication
  • Thrombolytic therapy
  • Surgical placement of a vena cava filter

Prevention of a Pulmonary Embolism

Maintaining an appropriate level of physical activity, drinking plenty of fluids and wearing compression stockings to keep circulation flowing in the legs can help prevent a pulmonary embolism.

Additional Resources