What is a pulmonary embolism?
A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in one of the pulmonary arteries in your lungs, typically a blood clot that travels from the legs or occasionally other parts of the body. This makes it difficult for the lungs to provide oxygen to the rest of the body. The clot blocks the flow of blood in the lungs, which is life-threatening. A pulmonary embolism is occasionally due to a blockage other than blood. Other materials that can cause a pulmonary embolism are fat from the marrow of a broken long bone, collagen or other tissue, part of a tumor, and air bubbles.
Am I at risk for a pulmonary embolism?
Surgery is one of the leading causes of blood clots, making it a risk factor for having a pulmonary embolism. Other risk factors include heart disease, a personal or family history of blood clots or pulmonary embolism, extended bed rest, being overweight, pregnancy, and smoking. Even if you are not in a higher risk group for a pulmonary embolism, you should be aware of the symptoms. Sudden sharp pains in one leg, particularly with unexplained swelling, should prompt you to seek medical treatment. This could be deep vein thrombosis, the primary cause of the blood clots which cause a pulmonary embolism. Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism itself include sudden shortness of breath which is worse than exertion, chest pain worsened by breathing deeply, coughing or eating, and a cough that produces bloody sputum. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. Call an ambulance or have someone bring you to the emergency department.
How is a pulmonary embolism treated?
Earlier detection greatly reduces your chance of long-term complications or even death from a pulmonary embolism. Once the doctor establishes the embolism, they will usually order an anticoagulant (blood thinner) to be given intravenously. This will prevent new clots from forming and will encourage the dissolution of the current one(s). This is often followed up with a course of oral anticoagulants until the clot has dissipated. In a life-threatening situation, a clot-dissolving medication (thrombolytic) may be ordered. This is given intravenously and will dissolve the clot quickly. However, the risk of bleeding is high. Therefore, it is typically reserved for emergency situations. In some cases, a clot removal surgery may be necessary. Schedule an appointment for more information and to understand your options.