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Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary Embolism (PE) is a blockage of the main artery of the lung or one of its branches by a substance that has travelled from elsewhere in the body through the bloodstream (embolism). Usually this is due to embolism of a thrombus (blood clot) from the deep veins in the legs, a process termed venous thromboembolism. A small proportion is due to the embolization of air, fat or amniotic fluid. The obstruction of the blood flow through the lungs and the resultant pressure on the right ventricle of the heart leads to the symptoms and signs of PE. The risk of PE is increased in various situations, such as cancer and prolonged bed rest.

Symptoms of pulmonary embolism include difficulty breathing, chest pain on inspiration, and palpitations. Clinical signs include low blood oxygen saturation and cyanosis, rapid breathing, and a rapid heart rate. Severe cases of PE can lead to collapse, abnormally low blood pressure, and sudden death.

Diagnosis is based on these clinical findings in combination with laboratory tests (such as the D-dimer test) and imaging studies, usually CT pulmonary angiography. Treatment is typically with anticoagulant medication, including heparin and warfarin. Severe cases may require thrombolysis with drugs such as tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) or may require surgical intervention via pulmonary thrombectomy.

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SYMPTOMS

Symptoms of PE are sudden-onset dyspnea (shortness of breath), tachypnea (rapid breathing), chest pain of a "pleuritic" nature (worsened by breathing), cough and hemoptysis (coughing up blood). More severe cases can include signs such as cyanosis (blue discoloration, usually of the lips and fingers), collapse, and circulatory instability due to decreased blood flow through the lungs and into the left side of the heart. About 15% of all cases of sudden death are attributable to PE.

On physical examination, the lungs are usually normal. Occasionally, a pleural friction rub may be audible over the affected area of the lung. A pleural effusion is sometimes present, detectable by decreased percussion note, audible breath sounds and vocal resonance. Strain on the right ventricle may be detected as a left parasternal heave, a loud pulmonary component of the second heart sound, and raised jugular venous pressure. A low-grade fever may be present, particularly if there is associated pulmonary hemorrhage or infarction.

More rarely, inability of the right ventricle to remove fluid from the tissues leads to fluid accumulation in the legs (peripheral edema), congestion of the liver with mild jaundice and tenderness, and ascites (fluid in the abdominal cavity).

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CAUSES & RISK FACTORS

The most common sources of embolism are proximal leg deep venous thrombosis (DVTs) or pelvic vein thromboses. Any risk factor for DVT also increases the risk that the venous clot will dislodge and migrate to the lung circulation, which happens in up to 15% of all DVTs. The conditions are generally regarded as a continuum termed venous thromboembolism (VTE).

The development of thrombosis is classically due to a group of causes named Virchow's triad (alterations in blood flow, factors in the vessel wall and factors affecting the properties of the blood). Often, more than one risk factor is present. 

  • Alterations in blood flow: immobilization (after surgery, injury or long-distance air travel), pregnancy (also procoagulant), obesity (also procoagulant), cancer (also procoagulant)
  • Factors in the vessel wall: of limited direct relevance in VTE

Factors affecting the properties of the blood (procoagulant state):

  • Estrogen-containing hormonal contraception
  • Genetic thrombophilia (factor V Leiden, prothrombin mutation G20210A, protein C deficiency, protein S deficiency, antithrombin deficiency, hyperhomocysteinemia and plasminogen/fibrinolysis disorders)
  • Acquired thrombophilia (antiphospholipid syndrome, nephrotic syndrome, paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria)
  • Cancer (due to secretion of pro-coagulants).

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DIAGNOSIS 

The diagnosis of PE is based primarily on validated clinical criteria combined with selective testing because the typical clinical presentation (shortness of breath, chest pain) cannot be definitively differentiated from other causes of chest pain and shortness of breath.

Selective pulmonary angiogram revealing significant thrombus (labelled A) causing a central obstruction in the left main pulmonary artery. ECG tracing shown at bottom.

CT pulmonary angiography (CTPA) showing a saddle embolus and substantial thrombus burden in the lobar branches of both main pulmonary arteries.

Ventilation-perfusion scintigraphy in a woman taking hormonal contraceptives and valdecoxib.

(A) After inhalation of 20.1 mCi of Xenon-133 gas, scintigraphic images were obtained in the posterior projection, showing uniform ventilation to lungs.

(B) After intravenous injection of 4.1 mCi of Technetium-99m-labeled macroaggregated albumin, scintigraphic images were obtained, shown here in the posterior projection. This and other views showed decreased activity in multiple regions.

The gold standard for diagnosing pulmonary embolism (PE) is pulmonary angiography. Pulmonary angiography is used less often due to wider acceptance of CT scans, which are non-invasive.

Non-invasive imaging:

CT pulmonary angiography (CTPA) is a pulmonary angiogram obtained using computed tomography (CT) with radiocontrast rather than right heart catheterization. Its advantages are clinical equivalence, its non-invasive nature, its greater availability to patients, and the possibility of identifying other lung disorders from the differential diagnosis in case there is no pulmonary embolism. Assessing the accuracy of CT pulmonary angiography is hindered by the rapid changes in the number of rows of detectors available in multidetector CT (MDCT) machines.

Tests that are frequently done that are not sensitive for PE, but can be diagnostic:

Chest X-rays are often done on patients with shortness of breath to help rule-out other causes, such as congestive heart failure and rib fracture. Chest X-rays in PE are rarely normal, but usually lack signs that suggest the diagnosis of PE (e.g. Westermark sign, Hampton's hump).

Ultrasonography of the legs, also known as leg doppler, in search of deep venous thrombosis (DVT). The presence of DVT, as shown on ultrasonography of the legs, is in itself enough to warrant anticoagulation, without requiring the V/Q or spiral CT scans (because of the strong association between DVT and PE). This may be valid approach in pregnancy, in which the other modalities would increase the risk of birth defects in the unborn child. However, a negative scan does not rule out PE, and low-radiation dose scanning may be required if the mother is deemed at high risk of having pulmonary embolism.

Electrocardiogram:

Electrocardiogram of a patient with pulmonary embolism showing sinus tachycardia of approximately 150 beats per minute and right bundle branch block.

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TREATMENT OPTIONS

In most cases, anticoagulant therapy is the mainstay of treatment. Acutely, supportive treatments, such as oxygen or analgesia, are often required.

Anticoagulation:

In most cases, anticoagulant therapy is the mainstay of treatment. Heparin, low molecular weight heparins (such as enoxaparin and dalteparin), or fondaparinux is administered initially, while warfarin, acenocoumarol, or phenprocoumon therapy is commenced (this may take several days, usually while the patient is in the hospital).

Thrombolysis:

Massive PE causing hemodynamic instability (shock and/or hypotension, defined as a systolic blood pressure <90 mmHg or a pressure drop of 40 mmHg for>15 min if not caused by new-onset arrhythmia, hypovolemia or sepsis) is an indication for thrombolysis, the enzymatic destruction of the clot with medication. It is the best available medical treatment in this situation and is supported by clinical guidelines.

The use of thrombolysis in non-massive PEs is still debated. The aim of the therapy is to dissolve the clot, but there is an attendant risk of bleeding or stroke. The main indication for thrombolysis is in submassive PE where right ventricular dysfunction can be demonstrated on echocardiography, and the presence of visible thrombus in the atrium.

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SURGERY

Surgical management of acute pulmonary embolism (pulmonary thrombectomy) is uncommon and has largely been abandoned because of poor long-term outcomes. However, recently, it has gone through a resurgence with the revision of the surgical technique and is thought to benefit selected patients.

Chronic pulmonary embolism leading to pulmonary hypertension (known as chronic thromboembolic hypertension) is treated with a surgical procedure known as a pulmonary thromboendarterectomy.

If anticoagulant therapy is contraindicated and/or ineffective, or to prevent new emboli from entering the pulmonary artery and combining with an existing blockage, an inferior vena cava filter may be implanted.

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OUR VASCULAR SURGEONS

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