Pulmonary Embolism

Treating Cardiovascular Diseases in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois

A pulmonary embolism, or PE, is a sudden blockage in a lung artery. This blockage, called an embolus, forms in another part of the body, usually a vein deep within a leg, and travels through the bloodstream to the lung.

PE is a very serious condition that can result in:

  • Damage to other organs because of reduced oxygen levels in the blood
  • Low oxygen levels in your blood from restricted blood flow to the lungs
  • Lung damage because of a lack of blood flow to the lung tissue
  • Pulmonary hypertension, or increased pressure in the pulmonary arteries, caused by lung damaged

If the blood clot is large or if several clots occur, pulmonary embolism can result in death. If left untreated, about 30 percent of those who have PE will die, usually within the first few hours of the event. However, quick diagnosis and proper treatment can save lives and help prevent complications.

Pulmonary Embolism Symptoms

Symptoms of pulmonary embolism often include:

  • An arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat
  • Chest pain or pain in the arm, shoulder, neck or jaw
  • Coughing or coughing up blood
  • Excessive sweating
  • Feelings of anxiety or dread
  • Increased heart rate
  • Light-headedness or fainting
  • Rapid breathing
  • Unexplained shortness of breath and difficulty breathing

In some cases, it’s possible to have PE and not have any signs and symptoms. Other times, the only signs of pulmonary embolismare those that are related to deep vein thrombosis, which occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein deep within the body, usually a leg. Symptoms of deep vein thrombosis include:

  • A feeling of increased warmth in the swollen or tender leg
  • Pain or tenderness in a leg
  • Red or discolored skin on the affected leg
  • Swelling of a leg or along a vein within a leg
  • Red or discolored skin on the affected leg

It’s very important to see your doctor right away if you have any signs of pulmonary embolismor deep vein thrombosis. Learn more about deep vein thrombosis symptoms(link).

Pulmonary Embolism Causes and Risks

The primary risk for a pulmonary embolism is deep vein thrombosis. The following conditions can lead to deep vein thrombosis or the formation of blood clots:

  • A family history of blood clotting disorders
  • A history of cancer or chemotherapy treatment
  • Blood pooling or collecting in certain parts of the body after long periods of inactivity, such as when recovering from a surgery or sitting for long periods of time, especially when traveling
  • Central venous catheters through an arm or leg
  • Congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation, heart attack or stroke
  • Excess weight or obesity
  • Hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills
  • Pregnancy or recently having a baby
  • Vein injuries, especially from when bones break in the leg, knee, hip or pelvis

Diagnosing Pulmonary Embolism

Many cases of pulmonary embolism are diagnosed in the emergency room.

When possible, doctors begin their diagnosis by asking about your medical history and assessing your risks during a physical exam. Depending on how you are feeling, you may have one or more of the following tests:

  • Blood tests to help detect substances that are released when a blood clot breaks down
  • Computed tomography scans to look for blood clots in the lungs and legs
  • Lung ventilation/perfusion scan, a test that shows how well oxygen and blood are flowing to all areas of your lungs
  • Pulmonary angiography, a test performed with X-rays, dye and a catheter (a long thin tube that’s inserted through a vein and into the lung)
  • Ultrasound to help detect blood clots in the legs

To rule out other causes, your doctor may also recommend any of the following tests:

  • Chest X-ray 
  • Echocardiography 
  • Electrocardiograph testing
  • Magnetic resonance imaging of the chest

Treating Pulmonary Embolism

Ideally, it is better to diagnose and treat deep vein thrombosis, the primary risk factor, before a pulmonary embolism can occur. When possible, doctors typically treat deep vein thrombosis with blood thinners for 3 to 6 months.

When a pulmonary embolism occurs, treatment is tailored to the severity of the condition. In less severe cases, doctors prescribe blood thinners to stop the clot from getting bigger and to keep new clots from forming.

If symptoms are life threatening, doctors may administer thrombolytic medications, known as clot busters, to quickly dissolve a blood clot. Because clot busters may cause sudden bleeding, they are used only in emergency situations.

Sometimes doctors may remove the clot during a pulmonary angiography. During this diagnostic test, doctors use a catheter, dye and X-rays to see blood flowing through the blood vessels in the lungs. When the blood clot is found, doctors use the catheter to remove the clot or deliver medicine to dissolve it.

In some cases, such as when a patient can’t take blood-thinning medications, doctors may insert a vena cava filter, a device that catches blood clots before they travel to your lungs. This devise is inserted into the inferior vena cava, a vein that carries blood from the body back to the heart.

In very rare cases, surgery is performed to remove the clot.

To help prevent blood clots or deep vein thrombosis, doctors often recommend compression stockings, which help keep blood from pooling and clotting. Taking blood thinners and walking as soon as you’re able after or surgery or traveling also help prevent blood clots from forming.

To keep your blood vessels healthy, it helps to eat a healthy diet, to get regular exercise, and to not smoke.

A Leader in Diagnosing and Treating Pulmonary Embolism

At Aurora Health Care our multi-disciplinary teams include vascular specialists, radiologists and cardiologists who collaborate in diagnosing and treating pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis.

Aurora doctors are conveniently located throughout eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. Find a doctor or heart specialist near you. To get a second opinion or if you need assistance finding a provider, please call 888-649-6892.