Pulmonary Embolism

Causes and Risk Factors of Pulmonary Embolism

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How to Know if You are at Risk for a Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism, or PE, is another term for a blood clot blocking an artery in the lungs. PE is an extremely dangerous medical condition. Approximately one-third of individuals with untreated or undiagnosed PE do not survive; however, prompt medical treatment can improve long-term survival rates significantly.

What Causes a Pulmonary Embolism?

Most cases of PE are the result of blood clots that have formed in the deep veins of the leg, called deep vein thrombosis or DVT. Small pieces of the clot can break off to become an embolism. The embolism travels through the circulatory system until it becomes lodged in the arteries of the lungs.

In rare cases, PE may be caused by other factors, including:

  • Small pieces of fat that enter the bloodstream after trauma such as surgery or the fracture of a large bone.
  • Air bubbles that enter the blood stream after trauma.
  • Pockets of infectious material.
  • Fast-growing tumors.

Pulmonary Embolism Risk Factors:

Factors such as immobility, surgery, and cancer can increase your risk of developing DVT and PE. Other risk factors include:

  • Being overweight.
  • Advanced age.
  • Impaired blood flow, damage to blood vessels, or abnormal clotting.
  • Failure to take anticoagulant medication as prescribed.

Pulmonary Embolism Signs and Symptoms:

The severity of PE symptoms can vary depending on the size of the clot, your overall health, and the amount of the lung that is involved. Typical symptoms include:

  • Chest pain that gets worse when you bend, cough, or breathe deeply.
  • Shortness of breath that occurs suddenly and worsens with exertion.
  • A cough, especially if there is blood-streaked sputum.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat.
  • Pain or swelling in the leg, usually the calf.

PE is a life-threatening condition. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should call 911 or head to your nearest emergency room.

Tests and Treatments for Pulmonary Embolism:

PE can be difficult to diagnose. In order to rule out heart attack, pneumonia, or other heart and lung conditions, your doctor will likely order a variety of tests, including:

  • Blood tests
  • X-rays
  • MRIs
  • CTs
  • Ultrasounds
  • Pulmonary angiograms

The goal of treatment is to prevent the clot from growing and new clots from forming. The following are the most common techniques used to treat DVT and PE blood clots:

  • Blood thinners, including warfarin, rivaroxaban, and apixaban.
  • Clot-busting drugs that are administered intravenously and can dissolve clots quickly. These medications pose a significant risk of severe bleeding, so they are normally only used in the most life-threatening cases.
  • Surgery to remove the clot.
  • Filters that are inserted into the vein to prevent clots from traveling to the lungs.

Preventing Pulmonary Embolisms:

There are proactive steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing blood clots, including:

  • Wear support stockings to encourage better circulation in your legs.
  • Prevent dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Take frequent breaks from sitting. If you are driving or flying for an extended time, get up every hour or so to stretch your legs.
  • Avoid crossing your legs at the knees for extended periods.