What Causes a Pulmonary Embolism and How to Prevent It?

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A pulmonary embolism is a serious medical condition that can be fatal if not treated immediately. It’s important to understand what causes the condition, what the symptoms are, and what to do if you think you may have a pulmonary embolism.

What is a Pulmonary Embolism?

A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot somewhere in the body – usually an arm or leg – moves through the bloodstream and lodges in the blood vessels in the lung. The clot can restrict blood flow to the lungs, lower oxygen levels, and increase blood pressure in the arteries that deliver blood to the lungs, known as the pulmonary arteries.

Pulmonary embolism treatment must occur immediately. If left untreated, the embolism can cause damage to the heart and lungs and may cause death.

What Are the Risk Factors for Pulmonary Embolism?

There are several pulmonary embolism causes, some of which are in your control. A pulmonary embolism forms when blood pools after a period of inactivity or a clot forms after an injury or trauma. A pulmonary embolism is most likely to affect people who:

  • Have had a long period of inactivity due to surgery or illness
  • Have a family history of any blood clotting disorder, including PE and deep vein thrombosis
  • Have had cancer or are receiving chemotherapy
  • Sit for long periods
  • Are inactive while traveling via car, train, or plane
  • Have a history of heart failure or stroke
  • Are obese or overweight
  • Have had a recent trauma or injury to a vein after a surgery, fracture, or varicose vein
  • Are pregnant or have recently given birth
  • Are taking birth control or hormone replacement therapy

If you have any of these risk factors, it’s important to understand the signs of pulmonary embolism.

Pulmonary Embolism Symptoms

While some people experience a pulmonary embolism without symptoms, most do experience some symptoms of pulmonary embolism. A clot in a lung may cause:

  • Sudden shortness of breath
  • Chest pains that worsen with exertion
  • An unexplained and sharp pain in your arm, shoulder, neck, jaw, or chest
  • Coughing (with or without bloody sputum)
  • Pale, clammy skin or bluish skin
  • Rapid pulse
  • Excessive sweating
  • Feeling light-headed, faint, or anxious
  • Wheezing

If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to get medical attention immediately. While some pulmonary embolisms resolve on their own, most require treatment.

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How is a Pulmonary Embolism Diagnosed?

Diagnosis of a pulmonary embolism requires tests. The most common tests used in diagnosis are as follows:

  • Lung scan
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Blood tests, including the D-dimer test
  • Ultrasound of the leg
  • MRI of the legs or lungs
  • Pulmonary angiogram

Your doctor will order the necessary tests to diagnose the embolism and proceed with treatment accordingly.

Pulmonary Embolism Treatment

Pulmonary embolism treatment is provided in a hospital because the situation requires careful monitoring. The length of treatment will be determined by the severity of the clot.

Treatments may include anticoagulant medications to thin your blood and prevent clotting. These include warfarin, heparin, and fondaparinux. It’s important to take anticoagulant medications as prescribed. Your doctor will follow up with frequent blood tests to measure how fast blood is clotting and whether your dose should be adjusted.

Another treatment option is thrombolytic therapy, which involves administering a tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) which dissolves the clot. This medication is only given under close medical supervision.

In severe cases of pulmonary embolism, medical procedures including surgery to remove the embolism or placement of a filter to prevent clots from reaching the lung may be required.

How to Prevent Pulmonary Embolism

If you’re at risk for a PE, there are some steps you can take to prevent a clot from forming. Some doctors recommend that patients wear compression stockings, which prevent blood from pooling in the legs.

You may also want to:

  • Lose weight if you are overweight
  • Drink plenty of water and limit your caffeine intake
  • Quit smoking
  • Get regular exercise
  • If you have a sedentary job, get up and move around for a few minutes every hour
  • Avoid tight clothing
  • Avoid crossing your legs
  • Elevate your feet for 30 minutes a day

Pulmonary embolism can be serious, so be sure to seek immediate medical attention If you experience the symptoms we have listed here.