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 travels 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. Although a pulmonary embolism is not usually fatal, it is a complication of deep vein thrombosis, and can be life-threatening.

Causes of Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism can affect anyone, but certain factors, including the following, increase the risk of developing one:

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

Using hormone-replacement therapy also increases the risk of pulmonary embolism.

Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism

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

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

Swelling in what is usually only one of the legs can also be a symptom of pulmonary embolism.

Diagnosis of Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism is difficult to diagnose, although it may be detected with the following:

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

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may also help to diagnose a pulmonary embolism.

Treatment of Pulmonary Embolism

Treatment for pulmonary embolism usually takes place in a hospital because vital signs need to be monitored. The clot's severity and the patient's medical condition determine the length of the hospital stay. Treatment for pulmonary embolism includes anticoagulant (blood-thinning) medication; thrombolytic therapy; and surgical placement of an inferior vena cava filter.

Prevention of Pulmonary Embolism

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

Additional Resources