A pulmonary embolism (PE) is a blockage in one of the pulmonary arteries in your lungs. A severe and sudden pulmonary embolism can lead to abnormally low blood pressure, loss of consciousness, or even death.
What causes a pulmonary embolism?
Blood carries oxygen to the body’s tissues and organs as it circulates. When the oxygen is used up, the blood returns to the heart and lungs to pick up more oxygen. Blood enters the lungs through the pulmonary artery, which carries blood from the heart’s right ventricle to the lungs.
The pulmonary artery can be blocked by a substance—usually a blood clot—that travels through the bloodstream and becomes lodged in the artery. Often times this clot starts in a deep vein in the legs, called deep vein thrombosis. When this happens, blood flow through the lungs is restricted and the heart is put under increased pressure. Since pulmonary embolism occurs in conjunction with deep vein thrombosis, most physicians refer to the two conditions together as venous thromboembolism.
Signs and symptoms of a pulmonary embolism
Symptoms of pulmonary embolism depend on the location and severity of the blood clot. Common symptoms include:
- Heart palpitations
- Anxiety and restlessness
- Difficulty breathing or sudden shortness of breath
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Coughing up blood
- Excessive sweating
- Leg pain or swelling
- Chest pain that may extend into the shoulder, arm, neck or jaw
How is a pulmonary embolism diagnosed?
In addition to reviewing your medical history and conducting a physical exam, your doctor may order some of the following tests to diagnose a pulmonary embolism:
- Blood test (test for presence of clot- dissolving substance D dimer)
- Chest X-ray
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan
- Duplex ultrasound
- Electrocardiograph (ECG)
- Pulmonary angiogram
How is a pulmonary embolism treated?
Options for treating a pulmonary embolism include:
- Blood thinners
- Suction Thrombectomy
- Vein filter
- Preventive measures
- Take a break from sitting
- Compression stockings
- Pneumatic compression
- Physical activity
- Leg elevation