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Causes, Symptoms and Treatment of Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism (embolus) is a blood clot or a piece of tissue or fat, blocking the arteries of the lung. These clots that cause pulmonary embolism typically form elsewhere, than travel through the person’s bloodstream to their lungs. The blood clot may form in the pelvis area or in the leg.

Fast Facts about Pulmonary Embolism

  • A pulmonary embolism is a blockage caused for instance by a blood clot stuck in the main artery of the lung or one of its branches. Blood clots that cause pulmonary embolism typically form in the legs.
  • Pulmonary embolism typically forms during or after prolonged immobility, during which blood clots form.
  • Patients after surgery and people travelling long distances are especially at risk of pulmonary embolisms. It is recommended that people in these situations wear support stockings or frequently stretch to lower embolism risk.

Common Causes of Pulmonary Embolism

The cause of pulmonary embolism is a piece of tissue, fat or blood clot that forms deep in the veins, usually in the legs, then breaks off and travels to the person’s lungs where it gets trapped in the arteries. Where you see one incident of pulmonary embolism, you will most likely see many more. It is highly unusual for there to only be one.

Risk Factors for Pulmonary Embolism

Anyone who is bed bound for any prolonged length of time is more apt to develop a blood clot. In addition, those who are traveling long distances on a plane, bus or even car, are more prone to developing a blood clot because of prolonged physical inactivity. Anyone who is traveling for many hours is encouraged to get up and walk around as much as possible during their travel.

Older individuals as well as those who have recently had different types of surgery are more likely to develop a clot. Other factors increasing the risk include predisposition, i.e. those who have had blood clots previously, people with heart disease and those who have had a heart attack.

In addition, individuals who have a history of smoking will also have a higher risk as smoking constricts blood vessels and can lead to blood clots.

Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism

One of the first signs of a pulmonary embolism is the sudden onset of a shortness of breath. This can occur whether you are sitting still or engaging in some physical activity. An individual may have chest pain that feels like a heart attack and can have a cough which can be dry or bring up mucus and blood. Other individuals have reported the following signs and symptoms – swelling in the legs, lightheadedness, sweating and clammy skin.

Diagnosing Pulmonary Embolism

One of the first diagnostic tools is a chest x-ray. While these x-rays do not definitively diagnose a blood clot, it can rule out other things that may be causing the symptoms. If needed, a scan of the lungs will be ordered, looking for any possible blood clots. An ultrasound, and MRI and/or CAT scan may all be done. These tests show the doctor the inside of the lung walls and if a single scan does not show anything, the doctor may order all three in order to correctly diagnose this condition.

Treatment Options for Pulmonary Embolism

Treatments may include the administration of blood clot dissolvers, anti-clotting agents and in some cases, surgical removal, if the clot is large enough. In the most severe cases, a filter may be installed in the arteries leading to the heart that will block blood clots from getting to the lungs. This is usually done when other modes of treatment do not work.

Prevention of Pulmonary Embolism

Preventing deep vein blood clots in the legs from forming and breaking off is crucial in preventing pulmonary embolisms. After most surgeries, the nursing staff will provide patients with support hose or inflatable stockings in order to prevent blood clots from forming. If you are traveling, be sure to drink plenty of water, get up and move around, if you are unable to get out of your seat, move your legs around.

Coping with Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism is a very dangerous, life-threatening condition. If the blockage is not removed immediately, it can rapidly lead to death. If you were lucky enough to receive treatment in time and survive your first blockage, it is vital to follow your doctor’s instructions, including taking all prescribed medications and following recommended lifestyle changes.

Where to Get More Information: British Lung Foundation