It is estimated that each year, more than 600,000 patients suffer a pulmonary embolism (PE) and that pulmonary embolisms cause or contribute to as many as 200,000 deaths. PE is a very dangerous condition and can be fatal within seconds. Learning the warning signs and risk factors for pulmonary embolism can help save a life.
Causes of Pulmonary Embolism
PE is usually caused by deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which occurs when a blood clot develops in a deep vein. Veins can be deep, which means they are located within groups of muscles, or superficial, which means they are located close to the skin. If a piece of the blood clot breaks off, it can travel through the bloodstream, and block blood flow to a vital organ, like the heart, lungs or brain. If a blood clot blocks blood flow to the lungs, it is called a pulmonary embolism.
Symptoms of PE
- Shortness of breath, which is usually sudden
- Chest pain, which usually gets worse with exertion, but does not go away when resting
- Cough, which may be bloody
Most cases of PR are caused by DVT, which may or may not cause noticeable symptoms. DVT symptoms include pain, swelling, tenderness, and discoloration or redness in the area of the clot.
Your Risk for PE
If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may be at an increased risk for deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism.
- Have you recently had a long period of bed rest or sitting, such as a long plane or car ride?
- Are you obese?
- Do you take birth control pills or hormones for menopause?
- Do you have varicose veins, chronic atrial fibrillation, inflammatory bowel disease, arterial disease, or cancer?
- Do you have an inherited clotting disorder?
- Are you pregnant?
Diagnosis and Treatment of Pulmonary Embolism
If DVT is suspected, a simple painless ultrasound will be used to make a diagnosis. If DVT is diagnosed and treated early, the risk of death can be reduced from about 30% to less than 10%. If PE is suspected, it is diagnosed with computed tomography angiogram (CTA), an exam that includes a CT scan of the chest and injection of x-ray dye. Inova Alexandria Hospital offers a safe non-surgical treatment option for PE in which clot-dissolving medication is delivered using imaging guidance and very small tools. Read one patient’s story of pulmonary embolism diagnosis and treatment.