A pulmonary embolism is when material, most often a blood clot blocks an artery in the lungs that causes a restriction in blood flow. These blood clots typically form in the legs but can form in other parts of the body. When the clot reaches the lungs, it stops blood flow resulting in pulmonary infarction. This blockage inhibits the delivery of oxygen to other parts of the body and, if untreated, can result in death.
What Can Cause a Pulmonary Embolism
A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that occurs in your lungs. It can damage part of your lung because of restricted blood flow, decrease your blood oxygen levels, and affect other organs as well. Some causes of pulmonary embolism include:
- Air bubbles
- DVT- Deep Vein Thrombosis is a blood clot that forms in the deep veins in your legs and can move to the lungs where it can stop blood flow.
- Fat from the bone marrow of a long bone break.
- Collagen from vascular diseases such as Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
- A part of a tumor can also block an artery.
It is essential to know the risk factors for a pulmonary embolism. Anyone can develop a blood clot. However, certain factors make you more susceptible to them. These risk factors include:
- Medical history: if you have family members that have had venous blood clots or pulmonary embolisms in the past, this makes you at a higher risk of getting one. This is due to inherited disorders that can affect the blood and make you more prone to blood clots.
- Heart disease: if you suffer from cardiovascular disease, it makes the formation of clots more likely to occur
- Cancer: Pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancers can increase your levels of substances that help to clot blood.
- Surgery: One of the leading causes of blood clots. Patients are given medication to prevent clots after surgery.
- Prolonged immobility or a sedentary lifestyle
Signs of a Pulmonary Embolism
The signs and symptoms of a pulmonary embolism will vary depending on how much of your lung is involved. As well as the size of the clot and whether you have any other underlying lung or heart issues. Some common signs of a pulmonary embolism include:
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
- Excessive coughing
- Sweating excessively
- Irregular heartbeat
- Low blood pressure
- Anxiety attack
- Chest pain – This could also be a symptom of a heart attack, so always get chest pains checked out with your doctor.
- Swelling in the legs often in the calf
- Heat in the affected limb
- Leg pain or tenderness
- Skin discoloration
Diagnose and Treat Pulmonary Embolisms
If you are concerned that you have a blood clot or might be at risk for one, it is important to seek medical help for a diagnosis. A doctor will be able to conduct different tests to see if you have a clot. These tests include:
- Computed tomographic angiography (CTPA): is the main x-ray test doctor’s use to see if you have a pulmonary embolism.
- Pulmonary angiography: This is the most accurate test to detect PE. A doctor will make a small incision and guide a catheter through your veins and inject a special dye that allows them to see the blood vessels of your lungs. Images of your blood vessels will show up on the x-ray.
- Chest x-ray: Allows doctors to see your heart in lungs in detail and see if there are any problems with the bones around your lungs.
- MRI: Uses radio waves and a magnetic filed to scan your body and produce detailed images. A good option for pregnant women.
- CT Scan: Doctors can see cross-sectional images of your lungs.
- Ventilation/perfusion (V/Q) scan: Uses radioactive material to show which parts of your lungs are getting enough air flow (ventilation) and blow flow (perfusion). If your airflow is normal, but there is low blood flow in a specificarea, then there might be a clot.
- Venography: A special x-ray of the veins in your legs.
- Duplex venous ultrasound: Uses radio waves to see the flow of blood in your legs and check for blood clots.
- Echocardiogram: Ultrasound of the heart that can see if there is strain on your heart.
Once your doctor has diagnosed you with a blood clot, there are several treatment options to help with your pulmonary embolism. Some options include:
Blood thinners: also called “anticoagulants,” is the most common treatment for a blood clot in your lung. Serves two roles: first, it keeps the clot from getting bigger, and then it stops new clots from forming. Your body will absorb the clot on its own over time.
- Thrombolytic: are medicines that dissolve blood clots. If you have a large clot that can cause severe symptoms or complications, you will receive this medicine.
- Catheter-assisted thrombus removal: doctors use a flexible tube to reach a blood clot in your lung. A tool will then be inserted to break up the clot, or medicine will be delivered through a tube.
- A vena cava filter: If you can’t have blood thinner, then this will be used. Your doctor will insert a filter into a large vein called the vena cava. The filter is then used to catch the blood clot before they travel to your lungs. This is used to prevent a pulmonary embolism but does not stop new blood clots from forming.
Other non-medical or invasive treatments to aid in stopping blood clots from forming:
- Compression stockings: provide constant pressure which, aids leg muscles in keeping the blood moving.
- Leg elevation at night: to help with blood flow and relieve pressure on your legs.
- Pneumatic compression cuffs inflate and deflate automatically to aid in blood movement especially after surgery.
Prevent a Pulmonary Embolism
The best therapy is prevention. If you have a family history of blood clots or other risk factors, you may want to start making a change now before you develop blood clots.
- Exercise regularly
- Stay well hydrated
- Use compression stockings
- Take frequent breaks from sitting or lying down
- Eating a healthy diet
- Getting to and maintaining a healthy weight
While having a pulmonary embolism is a serious matter, there are steps you can take to prevent them from being life threatening. If you have a family history or think you are at risk for a blood clot, keep an eye out for the symptoms of a blood clot. Then make sure to seek medical treatment right away if you think you have PE.