Pulmonary embolism is an obstruction of a blood vessel in the lungs, usually due to a blood clot, which blocks a coronary artery.
Pulmonary embolism is a fairly common condition that can be fatal. According to the American Heart Association, an estimated 600,000 Americans develop pulmonary embolism annually; 60,000 die from it. As many as 25,000 Americans are hospitalized each year for pulmonary embolism, which is a relatively common complication in hospitalized patients. Even without warning symptoms, pulmonary embolism can cause sudden death. Treatment is not always successful.
Pulmonary embolism is difficult to diagnose. Less than 10% of patients who die from pulmonary embolism were diagnosed with the condition. It occurs when emboli block a pulmonary artery, usually due to a blood clot that breaks off from a large vein and travels to the lungs. More than 90% of cases of pulmonary embolism are complications of deep vein thrombosis, blood clots from the leg or pelvic veins. Emboli can also be comprised of fat, air, or tumor tissue. When emboli block the main pulmonary artery, pulmonary embolism can quickly become fatal.
Causes and symptoms
Pulmonary embolism is caused by emboli that travel through the blood stream to the lungs and block a pulmonary artery. When this occurs, circulation and oxygenation of blood is compromised. The emboli are usually formed from blood clots but are occasionally comprised of air, fat, or tumor tissue. Risk factors include: prolonged bed rest, surgery, childbirth, heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, cancer, obesity, a broken hip or leg, oral contraceptives, sickle cell anemia, congenital coagulation disorders, chest trauma, certain congenital heart defects, and old age.
Common symptoms of pulmonary embolism include:
- labored breathing, sometimes accompanied by chest pain
- a rapid pulse
- a cough that produces bloody sputum
- a low fever
- fluid build-up in the lungs
Less common symptoms include:
- coughing up a lot of blood
- pain caused by movement
- leg swelling
- bluish skin
- swollen neck veins
In some cases there are no symptoms.
Pulmonary embolism can be diagnosed through the patient's history, a physical exam, and diagnostic tests including chest x ray, lung scan, pulmonary angiography, electrocardiography, arterial blood gas measurements, and leg vein ultrasonography or venography.
A chest x ray can be normal or show fluid or other signs and rule out other diseases. The lung scan shows poor flow of blood in areas beyond blocked arteries. The patient inhales a small amount of radiopharmaceutical and pictures of airflow into the lungs are taken with a gamma camera. Then a different radiopharmaceutical is injected into an arm vein and lung blood flow is scanned. A normal result essentially rules out pulmonary embolism. A lung scan can be performed in a hospital or an outpatient facility and takes about 45 minutes.
Pulmonary angiography is the most reliable test for diagnosing pulmonary embolism but it is not used often, because it carries some risk and is expensive, invasive, and not readily available in many hospitals. Pulmonary angiography is a radiographic test which involves injection of a pharmaceutical "contrast agent" to show up the pulmonary arteries. A cinematic camera records the blood flow through the lungs of the patient, who lies on a table. Pulmonary angiography is usually performed in a hospital's radiology department and takes 30 minutes to one hour.
An electrocardiograph shows the heart's electrical activity and helps distinguish pulmonary embolism from a heart attack. Electrodes covered with conducting jelly are placed on the patient's chest, arms, and legs. Impulses of the heart's activity are traced on paper. The test takes about 10 minutes and can be performed in a physician's office or hospital lab.
Arterial blood gas measurements can be helpful, but they are rarely diagnostic for pulmonary embolism. Blood is taken from an artery instead of a vein, usually in the wrist and it is analyzed for oxygen, carbon dioxide and acid levels.
Venography is used to look for the most likely source of pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis. It is very accurate, but it is not used often, because it is painful, expensive, exposes the patient to a fairly high dose of radiation, and can cause complications. Venography identifies the location, extent, and degree of attachment of the
Patients with pulmonary embolism are hospitalized and generally treated with clot-dissolving and clot-preventing drugs. Oxygen therapy is often needed to maintain normal oxygen concentrations. For people who can't take anticoagulants and in some other cases, surgery may be needed to insert a device that filters blood returning to the heart and lungs. The goal of treatment is to maintain the patient's cardiovascular and respiratory functions while the blockage resolves, which takes 10–14 days, and to prevent the formation of other emboli.
Thrombolytic therapy to dissolve blood clots is the aggressive treatment for very severe pulmonary embolism. Streptokinase, urokinase, and recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) are thrombolytic agents. Heparin is the injectable anticoagulant (clot-preventing) drug of choice for preventing formation of blood clots. Warfarin, an oral anticoagulant, is usually continued when the patient leaves the hospital and doesn't need heparin any longer.
About 10% of patients with pulmonary embolism die suddenly within the first hour of onset of the condition. The outcome for all other patients is generally good; only 3% of patients who are properly diagnosed and treated die. In cases of undiagnosed pulmonary embolism, about 30% of patients die.
Pulmonary embolism risk can be reduced in certain patients through judicious use of antithrombotic drugs such as heparin, venous interruption, gradient elastic stockings and/or intermittent pneumatic compression of the legs.
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Lori De Milto
Emboli—Clots or other substances that travel through the blood stream and get stuck in an artery, blocking circulation.
Thrombosis—The development of a blood clot inside a blood vessel.