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Pulmonary Embolism: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments


A pulmonary embolism is as bad as it sounds – it can restrict blood flow to the lungs and cause damage, and in some cases it can be fatal, according to Healthline.com.

There are telltale symptoms and certain risk factors involved with a pulmonary embolism, but luckily it can be treated. Let’s take a closer look at 12 things to know about them…

1. What Is It?

Healthline.com notes that a pulmonary embolism refers to a blood clot that occurs in the lungs. The result is possible lung damage due to limited blood flow, as well as decreased oxygen levels in the blood, adds the source.

A pulmonary embolism may impact certain other organs as well, it adds. The problem can be life threatening, and can even lead to death, it adds.

2. Most Common Symptoms

While there could be a long list of associated symptoms, usually 3-of them seem to be most prominent, according to the Mayo Clinic. The common signs are shortness of breath, chest pain, and a cough (which may include traces of blood), it explains.

“Pulmonary embolism symptoms can vary greatly, depending on how much of your lung is involved, the size of the clots, and whether you have underlying lung or heart disease,” adds the clinic.

3. Other Telltale Symptoms

The Mayo Clinic notes that on top of the main 3-symptoms, there are other possible signs of a pulmonary embolism. These symptoms can include clammy or discolored skin (medically known as cyanosis), fever, or a rapid or irregular heartbeat.

You may also experience leg pain and swelling (usually in the calf), excessive sweating (sometimes referred to as hyperhidrosis), or even light-headedness or dizziness, adds the source.

4. Causes of a Pulmonary Embolism

WebMD says the main cause of blood clots in the lungs is due to a clot in the leg called deep vein thrombosis. “Pulmonary embolisms usually travel to the lungs from a deep vein in the legs,” it explains.

The cause of deep vein thrombosis, meanwhile, is usually due to long periods of inactivity, such as when you’re on a long plane ride or you’re on bed rest following a medical procedure, it adds.

5. Other Risk Factors

Other reasons you might develop a pulmonary embolism include increased clotting of your blood, known medically as hyper coagulability, according to WebMD. This can be caused by certain medications like birth control pills, it adds.

Other risk factors include smoking, being pregnant, or having damage to a blood vessel wall. “Trauma to your lower leg can lead to this,” it notes. These additional risk factors together are known in the medical world as “Virchow’s triad,” says WebMD.

6. Medical History Factors

The Mayo Clinic explains that having certain underlying medical conditions or undergoing medical procedures can increase your likelihood of developing a pulmonary embolism as well. These include heart disease that can make “clot formation more likely,” cancer, or surgery – although medications are sometimes given before and after procedures to avoid the problem.

Genetics can play a part in your risk level as well. “You’re at higher risk if you or any of your family members have had venous blood clots or pulmonary embolism in the past,” it explains.

7. How is it Diagnosed?

WebMD says if you have any telltale signs of a pulmonary embolism, you should get medical help immediately. A doctor will usually begin with a physical exam, looking closely at your legs for swelling or tenderness, it adds.

Next, focusing more on the upper body, your doctor may also order a chest X-ray including a Computed tomographic angiography (CTPA) that can see blood vessels in your lungs with the help of injected dye in the veins. If you’re pregnant, an MRI may be used as an alternative, it adds.

8. Possible Complications of a Pulmonary Embolism

The Mayo Clinic warns that approximately 33-percent of patients that have untreated pulmonary embolism die as a result. “When the condition is diagnosed and treated promptly, however, that number drops dramatically,” it adds.

A pulmonary embolism can also cause pulmonary hypertension, which causes blood pressure in your lungs and the right side of your heart to rise to abnormal levels, it adds. “When you have obstructions in the arteries inside your lungs, your heart must work harder to push blood through those vessels,” notes the clinic. This increased blood pressure can ultimately weaken your heart, it warns.

9. Avoiding a Pulmonary Embolism

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has some tips for avoiding a venous thromboembolism (VTE), which includes pulmonary embolisms. To help prevent a “first VTE event,” movement is 1-primary approach, it says. “Helping your blood circulate makes it harder for clots to form,” it notes.

If you’re at risk or are going in for surgery, gentle pressure is another way to keep blood from pooling and clotting. Compression stockings may be 1-way to achieve this. Doctors may also prescribe blood thinners and other medications to keep blood from clotting before or after surgery, it adds.

10. Treatment

Cleveland Clinic explains pulmonary embolism is generally treated in a hospital for closer monitoring. In any case, doctors may turn to anticoagulant (blood-thinner) medications, or thrombolytic therapy, which refers to clot-busting medications.

If the clot is life threatening, or if other treatments are not proving to be effective, then you might require surgery to remove the clot from the pulmonary artery, it adds. There’s also an “interventional procedure” that places a filter inside the vena cava (your largest vein) to trap clots before they can get to the lungs.

11. Ongoing Care

If you’ve been put on blood thinners, you may be called back for blood tests to monitor their effectiveness and to measure how long it takes for your blood to clot, adds Cleveland Clinic.

Compression stockings are also often prescribed by doctors to assist with blood flow in the legs and prevent pooling of blood, it adds. “Talk with your doctor about how to use your compression stockings, for how long, and how to care for them,” suggests the source.

12. Keep Moving

As we mentioned before, being still for long periods of time (while traveling in a plane or car, for example) can add to the risk factor of developing a blood clot.

However, TheGuardian.com points to a study that shows a sedentary lifestyle – namely a lifestyle without regular activity – can lead to a pulmonary embolism. The study focused on about 70,000-nurses in the U.S. While nurses are often constantly on their feet while working, “the researchers found that those who sat for longer than six hours a day when they were not working had twice the risk of a pulmonary embolism of those who sat for less than two hours a day,” it notes.

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