Pulmonary Embolism


What Is Pulmonary Embolism?

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in one of your pulmonary arteries, the vessels that supply your lungs with blood. The most common cause of a blockage is a blood clot that breaks free from somewhere else in your body and moves to the lungs.

Even a small embolism can damage your lungs. A large clot can threaten your life.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism are fairly common. In fact, as many as 900,000 people a year experience DVT or a pulmonary embolism, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Fortunately, fast treatment can save your life. Aurora Health Care’s expert cardiologists offer every available technique to eliminate blood clots, reduce the damage blood clots can cause and prevent new ones from forming. We help you breathe easy again.


Signs of Pulmonary Embolism

The symptoms of pulmonary embolism can be very different, depending on the size of the blockage and its location. People with lung or heart disease may experience more severe symptoms.

The most common signs of a pulmonary embolism include:

  • Shortness of breath that comes on suddenly
  • Coughing, sometimes with blood or pink mucus coming up
  • Sharp chest pain that hurts more when you take a breath or cough

If you think you might have a blood clot or a pulmonary embolism, call 911 right away.

Other symptoms of a pulmonary embolism might resemble those of a heart attack:

  • Rapid heart rate or arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
  • Rapid or difficult breathing
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy, or fainting (syncope)
  • Clammy or discolored skin
  • Excessive sweating
  • Chest pain, as well as pain in your arm, shoulder, neck or jaw

Causes & Complications

Causes & Complications of Pulmonary Embolism

All pulmonary embolisms start when an artery becomes blocked. Most often, the blockage forms from one or more blood clots.

DVT is the most common source of clots.

  1. A blood clot breaks loose from a vein deep in one of your legs. (Rarely, the blood clot begins in another part of your body.)
  2. The clot travels through your bloodstream.
  3. The clot gets stuck in the artery, stopping blood flow.

Symptoms of DVT should be treated because of the risk that DVT may lead to a pulmonary embolism. These symptoms include:

  • Pain, inflammation or warmth in one of your legs
  • Skin that is red or discolored on one of your legs
  • Swelling in one leg or along one leg vein
  • Sores or ulcers on your leg

Learn more about deep vein thrombosis, sometimes also called venous thrombosis.

Risk Factors for Developing a Clot

Some pulmonary embolisms have other causes, including:

  • Age: People 70 and older are more likely to develop DVT or a pulmonary embolism.
  • Other artery blockages: People who naturally have blood that clots too quickly are at risk for an embolism. Sometimes an illness or accident releases a substance that blocks an artery. The substance might be an air bubble, a tumor or fat from the marrow of a broken bone. Such blockages are not common.
  • Long periods of inactivity: Sitting on a long flight or car trip can increase the risk of DVT. Staying in bed for a long time after an illness or surgery also can increase the risk.
  • Taking birth control pills or hormone therapy
  • Disease or infection: Stroke, heart failure, cancer or a severe infection raise the risk of a blood clot.
  • Pregnancy and childbirth (especially childbirth by cesarean section)
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight

Complications of Pulmonary Embolism

The most serious complication of pulmonary embolism is the risk of death. Pulmonary embolism is fatal for as many as one in three people who don’t receive medical care for their artery blockage. The likelihood of surviving and recovering is much higher if you receive treatment.

Sometimes, pulmonary embolisms cause pulmonary hypertension. The blood pressure is too high in your lungs and heart, and your heart has to work harder. We offer advanced diagnosis and care for pulmonary hypertension in our Pulmonary Hypertension Clinic.


Diagnosing a Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism can be difficult to diagnose, because its symptoms are similar to signs of a heart attack or panic attack.

More people turn to Aurora Health Care for heart and lung care than any other hospital system in Wisconsin. We’ve cared for people with many types of pulmonary embolism. With our experience, we can provide a fast, accurate diagnosis and start treatment right away.

We begin by evaluating your risk of pulmonary embolism so that we can order the best tests for you, which may include:

  • Blood tests: Laboratory testing can tell us if you have a blood clot. These tests also can check your oxygen level to see if your lungs are working correctly.
  • Chest X-ray: Doctors may order a chest X-ray to examine the structure of your heart and lungs.
  • Ultrasound: Ultrasound testing uses sound waves to produce an image of your lungs and heart.
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG): Electrocardiogram checks your heart rhythm and the rhythms of blood flow.
  • CT Scan: We use a spiral computed tomography (CT) scan, the most detailed type of CT scan, available only at advanced centers. The spiral CT circles your body to produce a very precise image of the blood vessels in your lungs.
  • Pulmonary angiogram: We thread a fine tube (catheter) through a large vein in the groin, past the heart and into the lungs. We use dye to temporarily stain the blood vessels, and then take X-rays as the dye moves through the arteries in your lungs.

Learn more about heart and vascular diagnosis and testing at Aurora.


Individualized Care for Pulmonary Embolism

In an emergency, your doctor may administer thrombolytic medications (clot busters) to dissolve the clot quickly.

If you’re diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism or DVT, your doctor may also recommend:

  • Lifestyle changes: These recommendations may include diet, exercise or simple changes like wearing compression socks to keep blood from pooling in your lower legs.
  • Medications: Blood thinners can help prevent a blood clot from forming.
  • Vena cava filter: If you can’t take blood-thinning medications, your doctor may insert a vena cava filter, a device that catches clots before they can reach your lungs.
  • Surgery: In some cases, you may need surgery to remove a blood clot. If you do need surgery, you’ll be in good hands. Our surgeons are among the nation’s leading experts in minimally invasive cardiovascular procedures. Read more about cardiovascular surgery.

Your doctor will talk with you about preventing blood clots from forming in the future.

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