Learn about Pulmonary Embolism, the sudden blockage in the lungs that can be life threatening.
What is Pulmonary Embolism?
Pulmonary embolism (PE) is the sudden blockage of one or more arteries in the lungs. When blood flow is restricted, part of the lung may be damaged. It can also cause low blood oxygen in the body which can ultimately affect other organs.
Pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein, then travels along the bloodstream and lodges in the lung. Pulmonary embolism is often a complication from deep vein thrombosis (DVT) of the legs or pelvic region. Clots form in these areas, then break away and travel to the lungs causing PE.
If left untreated, pulmonary embolism can be a life-threatening condition.
The symptoms of pulmonary embolism will vary depending on how big the clot is and how much of the lung has already been damaged. The most common symptom is an unexplained shortness of breath, but signs of a PE can also include:
- Rapid breathing
- Chest pain that may extend into the shoulder arm, neck or jaw
- Irregular heart beat
- Coughing up blood or blood-tinged sputum
- Weak pulse
- Excessive sweating
- Clammy skin
Because it is closely associated with deep vein thrombosis, the only symptoms of PE may be related to the DVT including swelling of the leg, leg tenderness, and red or discolored skin on the back of the knee.
The primary cause of pulmonary embolism is the blood clot formed in the legs and pelvis during deep vein thrombosis. The clot travels through the bloodstream and blocks blood flow to the lungs. This blockage results in pulmonary embolism. Doctors use the term venous thromboembolism (VTE) to refer to the combination of these two conditions.
Rarely, the source of pulmonary embolism can be attributed to air bubbles, a tumor blocking the lungs, or bone marrow released after breaking a bone.
Causes for pulmonary embolism are similar to those that cause deep vein thrombosis including:
- Genetic inheritance of blood clotting condition
- Inactivity while traveling
- Inactivity after surgery
- Taking birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
- Major surgery
- Damage or injury to the leg
Blood thinners are the first line of defense in pulmonary embolism treatment.
For a condition like pulmonary embolism, it is most advisable to follow a traditional treatment plan as prescribed by your doctor. Some of the treatment options she may outline include the following.
Anticoagulants: Initial treatment for pulmonary embolism will focus on making sure the clot doesn’t get any bigger. This is done by giving anticoagulant drugs, also called blood thinners, to keep the blood from clotting. Heparin and warfarin are common choices. These may be given orally, intravenously or as an injection.
Thrombolytics: In life-threatening situations, clot-dissolving medication may be injected directly into the clot using a catheter. Due to the high risk of excess bleeding and stroke, this procedure is only used as a last resort.
Vein Filter: A catheter may be used to place a thin filter in the inferior vena cava of the leg. The filter can block clots from reaching the lungs but it cannot stop new clots from developing.
Prevention of a pulmonary embolism starts with preventing deep vein thrombosis.
To prevent a pulmonary embolism, take steps to avoid deep vein thrombosis. Don’t sit for long periods of time, maintain an active lifestyle, and manage a healthy diet and a reasonable weight. Also, follow these important prevention guidelines:
- After surgery, get up and walk as soon as the doctor approves.
- When traveling by bus, plane or car, walk whenever you can, even if it’s just down the aisle a few times or around the rest stop.
- Wear compression stockings that apply gentle constant pressure to the legs and calves. This is recommended if the person has had a previous deep vein thrombosis, or if the patient will be convalescing for several days after surgery.
- Stay hydrated