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Pulmonary Embolism: Everything You Need to Know

Published on July 5, 2015

A pulmonary embolism is a sudden blockage in one of the pulmonary arteries in your lungs. It is usually caused by a blood clot in the leg called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The clot breaks loose and travels through the bloodstream to the lungs. Since pulmonary embolism almost always occurs in conjunction with deep vein thrombosis, many doctors refer to the two conditions as venous thromboembolism. Pulmonary embolism can be life-threatening, so it’s important to know the facts.

What causes pulmonary embolism?

This is most commonly caused by a blood clot, but occasionally, substances other than blood clots can form blockages within a blood vessel inside your lungs, such as: fat from within the marrow of a broken long bone, part of a tumor, and air bubbles.

Anyone can develop DVT and pulmonary embolism, but there are some factors that increase your risk, including:

– Medical history: You’re at higher risk if you or any family members have had venous blood clots or pulmonary embolism in the past. This could mean that you have an inherited disorder that affects your blood, making it more prone to clot.

– Heart disease or cancer (especially pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers). These cancers can increase levels of substances that cause blood to clot. Chemotherapy can also increase your risk. Women with a personal or family history of breast cancer who are taking tamoxifen or raloxifene are also at higher risk.

– Long periods of inactivity such as bed rest or long journeys. When the lower extremities are horizontal or in a cramped position for long periods of time, the flow of venous blood slows and blood pools in the legs.

– Surgery: This is one of the leading causes of problem blood clots, and is especially common after joint replacements of the hip and knee. This is because during the preparation of the bones for the artificial joints, tissue debris may enter the bloodstream and contribute to causing a clot. Also, as seen above, you may be at increased risk due to inactivity. Your risk increases even more with the length of time you’re under general anesthesia. Because of this, most people undergoing a type of surgery predisposing to DVT will receive medication before and after surgery to prevent clots.

– Other factors include: smoking, being overweight, supplemental estrogen, such as in birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy, and pregnancy: the weight of the baby pressing on veins in your pelvis can slow blood return from the legs.


What are the symptoms?

Symptoms can vary depending on how much of your lung is involved, the size of the clots, and your overall health. Some won’t experience any symptoms at all. For others, common signs and symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing, leg pain or swelling, clammy or discolored skin, fever, excessive sweating, rapid or irregular heartbeat, lightheadedness, or dizziness. If you experience any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately.

How is pulmonary embolism diagnosed?

Unfortunately, this can be difficult to diagnose, but there are a series of tests that doctors may use to help find the cause of your symptoms, including blood tests, chest x-ray, ultrasound, CT scan, pulmonary angiogram, EKG, Echocardiography, and MRI.

What is the treatment for pulmonary embolism?

Treatment is aimed at keeping the blood clot from getting bigger and preventing new clots from forming. It is essential that you treat a clot immediately to help prevent serious complications or death. Doctors may prescribe medications such as blood thinners (anticoagulants) or clot dissolvers (thrombolytics), or it may require surgery such as clot removal via a thin, flexible tube (catheter) threaded through your blood vessels, or a vein filter inserted into your body’s main vein (the inferior vena cava), to prevent clots from being carried into your lungs.

How can I prevent pulmonary embolism from happening to me?

In hospitals, they may take the following measures to prevent pulmonary embolism: Administer anticoagulants, provide compression stockings, use pneumatic compression, encourage physical activity, or elevate your legs.

If you’re traveling, you can do the following to prevent blood clots: Get up and walk around every hour, do a few deep knee bends, fidget in your seat, flex your ankles every 15 to 30 minutes, drink plenty of fluids, wear support stockings, and lastly, don’t sit with your knees crossed for long periods of time.

Who should I call for help?

If you suspect a blood clot, go to the hospital. Blood clots can be life threatening. The sooner you get help, the better.

If you or someone you love experienced a blood clot while in the care of a hospital or following a surgical procedure, contact Knapp & Roberts’ personal injury and wrongful death attorneys. Your blood clot may be the result of medical negligence or malpractice. During an initial consultation, we will take a look at what happened and determine whether you have a case at no cost to you. Give us a call today, 480-991-7677.

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