Pulmonary Embolism

What is pulmonary embolism?

chest x-ray image Pulmonary embolism is a blockage of a major artery in your lung. It’s usually due to a blood clot that develops in another part of your body and travels in the blood stream into the lung, where it prevents your heart from taking in oxygen.

Pulmonary embolism is the third most common cardiovascular disease after heart attack and stroke. It can be life-threatening, but proper diagnosis and prompt care increases your odds of survival dramatically.

Know the symptoms of this disease, so you can spot when it occurs and seek treatment right away.

Identifying pulmonary embolism

Symptoms usually begin suddenly and may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Sharp chest pain aggravated by coughing or movement
  • Back pain
  • Cough with or without bloody sputum
  • Excessive sweating
  • Rapid pulse or breathing
  • Lightheadedness or passing out
  • Blue lips or nail beds

If you experience these symptoms, you need to get to a hospital for examination.

Preventing pulmonary embolism

  • What risk factors contribute to the development of pulmonary embolism?

    • Surgery, particularly abdominal or orthopedic surgery
    • Trauma or bone fracture
    • A long period of bed rest or sitting
    • Cancer and some cancer treatments
    • Cardiovascular diseases
    • Pregnancy and the first 6 weeks after giving birth
    • Birth control pills or hormones taken for symptoms of menopause
    • Family history of blood clots
    • Inherited blood disorders that make the blood thick
    • Inflammatory bowel disease
    • Auto-immune diseases
    • Smoking
    • Obesity
    • Having implanted devices, like vein catheters, pacemakers or defibrillators
  • What action can I take to decrease my risk for pulmonary embolism?

  • Ask your doctor if any of these suggestions are appropriate for you:

    • Exercise regularly.
    • Wear elastic compression stockings, especially if you sit or stand for long periods.
    • Use blood thinners as prescribed. 
    • Walk or stretch your legs every hour on long flights or drives.
    • If you can't walk, move your arms and legs for a few minutes every hour to keep the blood flowing.
    • Stay hydrated.
    • Do not smoke.
    • Maintain your optimal weight.


  • What tests may be performed to diagnose a pulmonary embolism?

    • Chest X-ray
    • Computerized tomography angiogram (CTA)
    • Echocardiogram
    • Ventilation-perfusion lung Scan (VQ Scan)
    • Ultrasound of your leg veins (Duplex)
    • Pulmonary angiography
    • Blood tests

Treatment options

physician reading chest x-ray Medication – A common treatment is medication that thins the blood to prevent it from clotting.

Clot busters – Taken intravenously through an IV in the arm or through a long catheter, clot busters are one way to immediately remove a clot.

Surgery – Mechanical cardiopulmonary support and surgery to physically remove the clot are a last resort when other techniques have failed or can’t be used.