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Pulmonary Embolism Treatment and Causes

A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot leaves one of your veins and travels up to your lungs to clog your arteries. As many as 900,000 people receive a pulmonary embolism diagnosis every year, and as many as 100,000 people die from complications or even the blockage itself.

Fortunately, pulmonary embolisms are both treatable and in many cases, predictable. If you have genetic or lifestyle risk factors for pulmonary embolism (or venous thromboembolism), keep reading to learn more about pulmonary embolism treatment.

What Is a Pulmonary Embolism?

A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot travels to the lungs and blocks the pulmonary arteries.

The blockage reduces or even stops blood flow to the lungs. When blood cannot reach your lungs, your lungs don’t get oxygen and nutrients. The affected portion of your lung may die (also known as a pulmonary infarction). When this occurs, your lungs struggle to send oxygen to the rest of your body. As a result, early treatment reduces the likelihood of severe complications and death. 

What Are the Symptoms of a Pulmonary Embolism?

The symptoms of a pulmonary embolism broadly impact your chest and breathing. The most common signs are shortness of breath and chest pain. Both can appear suddenly and become worse when you try to breathe more deeply or quickly. The chest pain mimics that of a heart attack.

Coughing is another common symptom. Your cough will be painful, and you may also cough up bloody sputum.

Some of the other symptoms that may accompany the primary pulmonary embolism symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Swollen and/or painful calf (or leg)
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Sweating

If you have chest pain, shortness of breath, or you begin to cough up blood, then you should see your GP or visit the emergency room immediately.

What Causes a Pulmonary Embolism?

Pulmonary embolisms often begin life not in the lungs but on your legs. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a condition that refers to blood clots hiding in the deep veins in your calves. You may have one or multiple clots; multiple clots are most common, but they may not all occur at once.

Those clots can form for man reasons. Anything that stops your blood from clotting as it usually does can lead to DVT. However, the most common causes are:

  • Damage to your veins via injury or surgery
  • Blood-clotting disorders
  • Prolonged bed rest or paralysis
  • Sitting for extended periods (such as long-haul flights)
  • Heart failure

Other risk factors include:

  • Pregnancy
  • Smoking
  • Cancer
  • Age
  • Obesity
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Family history of DVT

Although most pulmonary embolisms are the product of a blood clot, blockages can also result from other substances. On occasion, the embolism may be the result of:

  • A tumor
  • Tissues like collagen
  • Air bubbles
  • Fat escaped from the bone marrow of a broken bone

Unlike blood clots, these tissues aren’t as easy to predict.

The Epidemiology of Pulmonary Embolism

To understand more about predicting pulmonary embolism, it’s helpful to look at the most vulnerable populations.

Half of all cases occur in patients current hospitalized or living in nursing homes with 12 million patients at risk annually. At the same time, the rate of diagnosis is skewed because evidence suggests that for every non-fatal case diagnosed, there are 2.5 more fatal cases only discovered after death.

The most significant risk factors for patients tend to be advanced age, surgery, trauma, bedridden, pregnancy, congestive heart failure, and blood coagulation issues. The risk factors are cumulative, which means that there is a higher chance of pulmonary embolism as time goes on.

How to Diagnose a Pulmonary Embolism

Doctors identify blood clots in the lungs by using chest x-rays, blood tests, and ultrasounds.

An x-ray doesn’t show the blood clot, but it does rule out other conditions that may masquerade as a pulmonary embolism.

Blood tests identify high levels of D dimer, which is a clot-dissolver. When you have high levels of D dimer, it indicates that your body is attempting to rid itself of blood clots somewhere in your body. Doctors also use blood tests to measure the oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. A blood clot may cause your blood oxygen levels to drop.

Ultrasounds identify blood clots in your thigh veins using sound waves. These tests identify DVT, which then points to a pulmonary embolism or risk of pulmonary embolism.

These tests are often used to confirm a diagnosis alongside the patient’s symptoms and medical history.

If necessary, doctors use a pulmonary angiogram to see the blood flow through your lungs clearly. It is the only test that indicates an embolism, but it is not often used because it carries serious risks for patients and requires a specialist to perform. MRIs are an alternative used for pregnant women to avoid the radiation of a pulmonary angiogram.

Pulmonary Embolism Treatment

The goal of pulmonary embolism treatment is to prevent both the current clot from growing and new clots from occurring.

In most cases, a physician prescribes blood thinners and clot dissolvers to break up and dissolve clots, respectively. Blood thinners are the more common choice because they are more effective, and there is a new class that treats both venous thromboembolism (DVT) and pulmonary embolism.

For example, Xarelto both treats and reduces the risk of both DVT and pulmonary embolism. You can find a Xarelto coupon here.

Clot dissolvers are less common because they may cause unpredictable and severe bleeding. Physicians typically prescribe these only when the embolism is a threat to the patient’s life.

If it’s necessary to remove the clot ASAP, you may undergo a clot removal procedure. A surgeon will remove the clot using a catheter.

Are You At Risk for Pulmonary Embolism?

Pulmonary embolism is a risk for anyone with blood clotting issues or who is frequently immobile. Fortunately, the problem is both simple to diagnose and treat. However, early diagnosis and treatment are always preferable as it reduces the risk of damage and death.

Are you looking for more ways to bounce back from surgery or an injury? Visit our general health section for more helpful information.