Pulmonary embolism: Causes, Risk Factors, Symptoms, Treatment

Pulmonary embolism

Pulmonary embolism is a serious medical condition that occurs when a blood clot, typically originating in the legs, travels to the lungs and blocks one or more of the pulmonary arteries. 

Pulmonary Embolism

If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms or if you suspect a pulmonary embolism, it is essential to consult with a Cardiologist.


There are several factors that can contribute to the development of a pulmonary embolism. 

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT): The majority of pulmonary embolisms are caused by blood clots that form in the deep veins of the legs or, less commonly, in the arms or pelvis. These clots can break loose and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs, causing a blockage.

Immobility: Extended periods of immobility, such as during long flights, bed rest after surgery, or prolonged sitting, can increase the risk of blood clots forming in the veins.

Surgery: Certain surgeries, especially those that involve the pelvis, abdomen, hip, or legs, can increase the risk of developing blood clots that may lead to PE.

Trauma: Injury to a vein, such as a broken bone or severe muscle injury, can increase the risk of blood clots.

Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions and disorders can increase the risk of blood clots and PE, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, and autoimmune diseases.

Pregnancy and childbirth: Pregnancy and childbirth increase the risk of blood clots due to hormonal changes, increased pressure on the veins in the pelvis, and reduced mobility.

Hormone therapy and birth control pills: Estrogen-containing medications, such as hormone replacement therapy and birth control pills, can increase the risk of blood clots.

Genetic factors: Inherited blood clotting disorders, such as factor V Leiden mutation and prothrombin gene mutation, can increase the risk of blood clots and PE.

Risk Factors

Here are some common risk factors for pulmonary embolism:

Sedentary lifestyle: Prolonged periods of inactivity can increase the risk of blood clots forming in the legs, which can travel to the lungs.

Surgery: Major surgery, especially orthopedic surgeries like hip or knee replacements, can increase the risk of blood clots.

Prolonged immobility: Long periods of immobility, such as during long flights or bed rest, can lead to blood clots.

Obesity: Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of blood clots.

Smoking: Smoking damages blood vessels and increases the risk of clot formation.

Pregnancy: Pregnancy increases pressure on the veins in the pelvis and legs, raising the risk of blood clots.

Family history: A family history of blood clots or clotting disorders can increase one's susceptibility.


Symptoms can vary depending on the size of the clot and the extent of blockage in the artery, but common signs and symptoms include:

Shortness of breath: This is often sudden and may occur even at rest. It can range from mild to severe, and may worsen with exertion.

Chest pain: The pain may feel like a sharp, stabbing sensation, especially when breathing deeply, coughing, or bending. It may also be described as a dull ache or pressure in the chest.

Cough: This may be dry or produce bloody sputum. Coughing up blood is known as hemoptysis.

Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia): The heart may beat faster than normal as it tries to compensate for decreased blood flow to the lungs.

Feeling lightheaded or dizzy: This can result from decreased oxygen levels in the blood.

Fainting (syncope): In severe cases, reduced blood flow to the brain may cause loss of consciousness.

Anxiety or apprehension: A feeling of impending doom or anxiety may occur, especially in response to severe shortness of breath or chest pain.

Wheezing: This may occur due to restricted airflow in the lungs.

Leg swelling or pain: This is a common symptom of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which often precedes pulmonary embolism. However, not everyone with PE experiences symptoms of DVT.

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Accurate and timely diagnosis of pulmonary embolism is crucial for effective management and treatment. 

Medical history: The doctor will inquire about your medical history, including any risk factors for blood clots such as recent surgery, prolonged immobility, history of previous blood clots, or use of hormonal medications like birth control pills.

Physical examination: This may reveal signs such as rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, low blood pressure, or swelling in the legs.

CT pulmonary angiography (CTPA): This is the most common imaging test used to diagnose PE. It involves injecting a contrast dye into a vein and then taking CT scans of the blood vessels in the lungs to look for blockages caused by blood clots.

Ventilation-perfusion (V/Q) scan: In cases where CT imaging is not feasible (e.g., due to allergy to contrast dye or kidney problems), a V/Q scan may be used. This test involves injecting a radioactive substance into a vein and then taking images of airflow (ventilation) and blood flow (perfusion) in the lungs.

D-dimer test: This blood test measures the level of D-dimer, a substance released when a blood clot breaks down. Elevated D-dimer levels can indicate the presence of blood clots, but it's not specific to PE and can be elevated in other conditions as well.

Arterial blood gas (ABG) analysis: This test may be done to assess the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood and evaluate lung function.

ECG (electrocardiogram): This may be performed to check for abnormalities in heart rhythm or signs of strain on the heart due to PE.

Echocardiogram: This test uses sound waves to create images of the heart and may be done to evaluate heart function and detect any signs of strain or damage caused by PE.


Treatment for pulmonary embolism (PE) typically depends on the severity of the condition and the patient's overall health. Here's an overview:

Anticoagulant Medications: These are usually the first-line treatment for PE. They prevent new blood clots from forming and stop existing clots from getting bigger. Commonly used anticoagulants include heparin (usually given initially by injection) and oral anticoagulants like warfarin, rivaroxaban, apixaban, dabigatran, or edoxaban. The choice of anticoagulant depends on various factors like the patient's kidney function, liver function, and other medications they may be taking.

Thrombolytic Therapy: In severe cases of PE, where there's a large clot causing significant obstruction, thrombolytic therapy may be considered. These medications, such as alteplase or tenecteplase, help dissolve blood clots quickly. However, they carry a higher risk of bleeding complications and are typically reserved for patients with hemodynamic instability or massive PE.

Embolectomy: In rare cases where there's a large, life-threatening clot that doesn't respond to medication, or if the patient can't receive thrombolytic therapy due to contraindications, surgical removal of the clot (embolectomy) may be necessary. This procedure involves physically removing the clot from the pulmonary arteries.

Inferior Vena Cava (IVC) Filter: For patients who can't take anticoagulants due to bleeding risks or those who develop recurrent clots despite anticoagulation, an IVC filter may be implanted. This device catches blood clots before they reach the lungs, preventing pulmonary embolism.

Supportive Care: Patients with PE may require supportive measures such as oxygen therapy to maintain adequate oxygen levels in the blood. In severe cases, mechanical ventilation may be necessary. Pain relief medication may also be prescribed if the patient experiences chest pain.

Preventive Measures

Preventive measures for pulmonary embolism, a condition where a blood clot blocks an artery in the lungs, can include:

Regular Exercise: Engaging in physical activity helps maintain healthy blood circulation and reduces the risk of blood clots.

Avoiding Prolonged Immobility: Whether during long flights, car rides, or periods of bed rest, try to move around periodically to prevent blood from pooling and clotting.

Healthy Diet: Consuming a balanced diet low in saturated fats and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help maintain overall cardiovascular health.

Hydration: Staying adequately hydrated thins the blood, making it less likely to clot. However, those with certain medical conditions should consult a doctor about their specific fluid intake needs.

Maintaining a Healthy Weight: Obesity increases the risk of developing blood clots, so maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise is essential.

Avoiding Smoking: Smoking damages blood vessels and increases the risk of clot formation. Quitting smoking reduces this risk.

Do's & Don’t's

When it comes to pulmonary embolism, knowing the do's and don'ts can be crucial in ensuring the best possible outcome for patients. By following these guidelines, individuals can take proactive steps to prevent and manage this potentially life-threatening condition. 

Do's Don't
Seek immediate medical attention if you suspect a PE. Don't ignore symptoms such as sudden shortness of breath, chest pain, or rapid heart rate.
Follow your healthcare provider's treatment plan, which may include blood thinners or other medications. Don't discontinue prescribed medications without consulting your healthcare provider.
Get plenty of rest and avoid strenuous physical activity until your healthcare provider gives you the green light. Don't engage in activities that may increase your risk of injury, which can worsen a PE.
Use compression stockings as recommended by your healthcare provider to prevent deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Don't sit or stand for long periods without breaks, especially during long journeys, to reduce the risk of DVT.
Stay well-hydrated, which can help prevent clot formation. Don't smoke or use nicotine products, as they can increase your risk of blood clots.
Maintain a healthy diet and weight, as obesity can be a risk factor for PE. Don't skip follow-up appointments with your healthcare provider.
Follow up with your healthcare provider for regular check-ups and monitoring of your condition. Don't disregard lifestyle changes and recommendations from your healthcare provider, such as dietary modifications or exercise routines.
Be aware of the signs and symptoms of a recurrent PE and report them promptly to your healthcare provider. Don't ignore signs of bleeding or unusual bruising, which can be side effects of blood thinning medications.
Consider support groups or counseling if you experience anxiety or depression related to your PE. Don't underestimate the importance of emotional well-being in your recovery.

If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms or if you suspect a pulmonary embolism, it is essential to consult with a Cardiologist.

Frequently Asked Questions
Common symptoms of PE include sudden chest pain, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, coughing up blood (hemoptysis), and in severe cases, loss of consciousness.
Risk factors for PE include a history of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), recent surgery, prolonged immobility, certain medical conditions (like cancer and inherited blood clotting disorders), pregnancy, use of hormonal contraceptives, and smoking.
PE is diagnosed through a combination of clinical evaluation, imaging tests, and blood tests. Common tests used for diagnosis include CT pulmonary angiography (CTPA), ventilation-perfusion (V/Q) scan, and blood tests like D-dimer.
The primary goal of treatment is to prevent the clot from growing and causing further complications. Treatment often involves anticoagulant medications (blood thinners) like heparin and warfarin. In some cases, more invasive procedures such as thrombolytic therapy or surgery may be necessary to remove or dissolve the clot.
The duration of blood thinner treatment varies depending on the individual's circumstances. Typically, treatment lasts for at least three to six months, but it may be longer, especially if there are underlying risk factors or recurrent clots.
Prevention measures include maintaining a healthy lifestyle, staying active, avoiding prolonged immobility (especially during long trips), and using compression stockings when recommended. For individuals at high risk, anticoagulant medications may be prescribed for prevention.
PE can lead to chronic complications, such as pulmonary hypertension, which is high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. This can result in shortness of breath and reduced exercise tolerance. Proper treatment and follow-up care are essential to prevent these complications.
If you experience symptoms like sudden chest pain, shortness of breath, or coughing up blood, seek immediate medical attention. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for a better outcome.
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