Pulmonary embolism (PE) occurs when one of your pulmonary arteries is obstructed suddenly. Most of the time, the blockage results from a blood clot that travels to your lungs from your leg. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 900,000 individuals in the United States suffer from PE or deep vein thrombosis (DVT) each year.
Approximately one-third of people with PE or DVT will experience a reoccurrence within 10 years. That’s why it’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms of PE and DVT. Being able to recognize the signs of the condition will allow you to get the immediate medical attention you need and increase your chance for survival.
What Is Pulmonary Embolism
According to Mayo Clinic, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occurs when a blood clot forms within a deep vein in your body. This usually takes place in your leg. When the blood clot breaks away and travels to your lung, obstructing one of your pulmonary arteries, pulmonary embolism occurs.
There are certain risk factors that put you at higher risk of developing pulmonary embolism. A family history of PE or DVT, having cancer, especially lung, pancreatic, or ovarian cancer, taking birth control or estrogen therapy, staying in one position for a long period of time, and being on long-term bed rest put you at higher risk of PE.
PE may also occur during or after a long car or airplane ride, after severe injuries, fractures of the hip or thigh bones, or burns, after childbirth, following a heart surgery, heart attack, or stroke, or after surgery, such as joint, bone, or brain surgery. Additionally, you are at higher risk for pulmonary embolism if you smoke.
According to MedlinePlus, having certain medical conditions can also put you at higher risk for PE. Specifically, immune system conditions that make it difficult for your blood to clot and genetic conditions that make your blood more likely to clot, such as antithrombin III deficiency, raise your risk of pulmonary embolism.
8 Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism
It’s important to note that pulmonary embolism symptoms can vary from one person to another. According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms vary depending on the size of the blood clot, how much of your lung is involved, and whether you already have underlying lung issues or heart disease.
The most common symptoms of pulmonary embolism include:
- Chest Pain: You may feel as if you are having a heart attack. The chest pain may get worse when you bend, stoop, breathe deeply, eat, or cough. The chest pain will get worse when you exert yourself, but it does not go away when you’re resting.
- Shortness of Breath: Shortness of breath typically occurs suddenly. It always worsens with exertion.
- Cough: You may cough up blood or blood-streaked sputum.
- Other signs and symptoms of pulmonary embolism may also occur. These include:
- Cyanosis: You may develop clammy or discolored (bluish) skin.
- Changes in Heart Rhythm: You may experience a fast or irregular heartbeat.
- Leg Pain: You may have leg pain, swelling, or both. This usually occurs in the calf area.
- Fever: You may develop a fever. You may also sweat excessively.
- Dizziness: You might feel lightheaded or dizzy. Fainting may also occur.
Causes of Pulmonary Embolism
The most common cause of pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that forms somewhere in your body and travels to your lungs, blocking one of your pulmonary arteries. Most commonly, the blood clot forms in a deep vein in the thigh or the hip. This kind of blood clot is known as a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Though it is less common, pulmonary embolism can also occur when fat from the marrow of a broken long bone, a piece of a tumor, collagen, air bubbles, clumps of parasites, or amniotic fluid blocks a pulmonary artery.
When pulmonary embolism occurs, the parts of the lungs served by the blocked artery cannot get blood and may die as a result. This condition is known as pulmonary infarction. When a pulmonary artery is obstructed, it makes it more difficult for your lungs to get oxygen to the rest of your body.
Pulmonary Embolism Treatment
Approximately one-third of individuals with undiagnosed and untreated pulmonary embolism die, according to Mayo Clinic. However, when treated promptly, an individual’s chance of survival dramatically increases. Treatment is aimed at preventing the clot from becoming larger and preventing new clots from developing.
Anticoagulants (Blood Thinners)
Blood thinners reduce your body’s ability to clot. These medications are utilized to keep blood clots from getting bigger and preventing new clots from developing. Anticoagulants do not dissolve blood clots already present in the body.
Warfarin and heparin are two blood thinners that are often used together initially to treat pulmonary embolism, according to the National Institute of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Heparin is a fast-acting blood thinner while warfarin takes two to three days to begin working. Oftentimes, physicians will stop giving heparin once warfarin begins to work in the body.
Thrombolin inhibitors are a new type of blood thinning medication. Thrombolin inhibitors work by binding to thrombolin, blocking its interaction with its substrates, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. Thrombolin inhibitors may be given to individuals who cannot take heparin.
If you take blood thinners, you will need routine laboratory tests to ensure that your blood isn’t being thinned too much. The most common side effect of blood thinners is bleeding. Internal bleeding can also occur.
Thrombolytics (Clot Dissolvers)
The human body can typically dissolve blood clots on its own. However, when pulmonary embolism is caused by a life-threatening blood clot, thrombolytics may be given. These medications can quickly dissolve blood clots. However, these medications can cause sudden severe bleeding, which is why thrombolytics are reserved for life-threatening situations.
If you have a large, life-threatening blood clot in your lungs, your physician may recommend that it be removed through a catheter threaded through your blood vessels.
If you cannot take anticoagulants or if they fail to work, your physician may recommend that you get a vein filter. The vein filter is placed in your inferior vena cava, your body’s main vein. The inferior vena cava goes from your legs to the right side of your heart. The vein filter can help keep blood clots from reaching your lungs. Some filters can be removed when they are no longer necessary.
There are numerous ways in which you can prevent pulmonary embolism. Wearing compression stockings, elevating your legs at night by raising the bottom of your bed four to six inches with blocks, and moving as soon as you can following surgery can help prevent pulmonary embolism. If you are at risk of blood clots, you may be given a blood thinner before and after surgery.
There are also several things you can do when you’re on a long train, car, or airplane trip to help prevent pulmonary embolism. If you’re flying, walk around the plane every hour. If you’re driving, stop every hour, and walk around your car a few times. Flexing your ankles every 15 to 30 minutes, wearing compression stockings, and drinking a lot of water can also help you prevent PE on long trips.
Pulmonary embolism occurs when a clot or other bodily substance blocks one of your lung arteries. Left untreated, pulmonary embolism is fatal for approximately one-third of those who have it. However, with immediate medical treatment, your chance of survival greatly increases.
If you experience the symptoms of PE, such as chest pain, coughing, and shortness of breath, contact your doctor right away or seek medical attention at your nearest emergency room. The treatment options for pulmonary embolism can prevent the blood clot from getting any bigger and inhibit the formation of new clots.