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What is a Pulmonary Embolism?

Pulmonary embolism is a condition that occurs when one or more arteries in the lungs becomes blocked. Typically, this occurs when blood clots travel from the legs to the lungs. It is a common condition and is one that is potentially lethal.

It cannot be stated strongly enough that pulmonary embolism can be a life threatening condition. Statistics reveal that approximately 1/3 of those people with an undiagnosed and untreated pulmonary embolus die. On the other hand, if diagnosed and treated promptly, that figure drops significantly.

There are a number of risk factors for pulmonary embolism including prolonged immobility, prior surgery, age, family history, certain medical conditions and lifestyle.

Any time you do not move around for a lengthy period of time increases the risk. This might be due to illness or simply due to inactivity such as sitting for long periods of time.

Surgery is another leading cause of blood clots, particularly those involving hip and joint replacement surgery. During the operative procedure, tissue debris may enter the bloodstream and a clot may form. Inactivity due to surgery is also a factor.

The classic symptoms of pulmonary embolism include sudden and unexplained shortness of breath, chest pain and a cough that may produce blood tinged sputum. It is vitally important to seek immediate medical care if you experience any of the classic symptoms.

Unfortunately, symptoms can vary and often they are vague and non-specific. Other symptoms that are observed with pulmonary embolism include:
  • Excessive sweating
  • Weak pulse
  • Swollen legs
  • Wheezing
  • Clammy skin
  • A rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Dizziness or fainting

Because the symptoms of pulmonary embolism are variable and often suggest other potential causes, it is not surprising that it is often missed by doctors. Medical studies of patients who have died unexpectedly from pulmonary embolism have revealed that they often had complained of nagging symptoms for lengthy periods prior to their death. Many of them had been seen by a doctor in the weeks prior to their death.

Although pulmonary embolism can be life-threatening, prompt treatment can lower the risk of death substantially. Treatment typically consists of anticoagulant medications to thin the blood and prevent new clots from forming. Clot dissolvers known as thrombolytics may also be used in an effort to dissolve clots quickly.

Sometimes surgical treatment may be warranted if there is a large clot in a lung. In other situations, a vein filter is placed in order to block clots from going from the legs to the lungs.
If it is suspected that you may be suffering from a pulmonary embolism, there are a number of tests that can be performed to help make the diagnosis. These include the following:
  • Chest X-ray: to help rule out conditions that have similar symptoms.
  • D-dimmer blood test: High levels of this substance in the blood suggest the increased likelihood that blood clots are present.
  • Lung Scan: A small amount of radioactive material is inhaled while a scanner takes pictures of the movement of the air in the lungs. In addition, a radioactive dye is then injected into the blood stream and pictures are taken of the blood flow around the lungs. The combination of the two procedures help provide an accurate diagnosis of pulmonary embolism.
  • Spiral CT scan: This is a specialized radiology study that is much more precise and much faster than a regular CT scan.
  • Ultrasound: This is a noninvasive test that uses sound waves to check for blood clots in the legs and thighs.
  • Pulmonary angiogram: In this procedure, a catheter is inserted into a large vein and into the heart and pulmonary arteries. Dye is injected and x-rays are taken as the dye travels in the arteries of the lungs.

Once again, it is vital to say in no uncertain terms that pulmonary embolism is a very serious condition that requires prompt diagnosis and treatment in order to avoid potentially catastrophic consequences.

For more information about pulmonary embolism see this emedicine article.
James Roswold
James Roswold is a Kansas & Missouri personal injury, workers comp, and medical malpractice attorney.

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