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Anyone who has ever taken a lengthy plane flight or been sedentary for long periods of time due to illness or injury is at risk for a serious complication: a pulmonary embolism. In this sudden and dangerous event, an embolism, or blood clot, gets stuck in one of the blood vessels in your lungs and blocks blood flow within that organ. Untreated, a pulmonary embolism (also known as a “PE”) can permanently damage your lung or other organs and may even lead to death. That’s why it’s so important to learn more about the causes and signs of a pulmonary embolism.

What Causes Pulmonary Embolisms?

Pulmonary emboli usually occur as the result of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot in the leg that breaks loose and travels to your lung. You are more likely to develop DVT and a pulmonary embolism if you smoke, are obese, take birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, are pregnant, if you are inactive for long periods of time (such as after surgery) or have a condition such as heart disease or cancer.

Pulmonary Embolism Symptoms

Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath — especially during and after physical activity
  • Fatigue
  • Coughing (or coughing up blood)
  • Fever
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Swelling and tenderness of the leg.

A pulmonary embolism is considered an emergency. If you suddenly have any of these symptoms, you should immediately call your doctor or 911.

Diagnosing Pulmonary Embolism

Your physician will use a variety of tests to diagnose a pulmonary embolism. These include:

  • Blood tests
  • Chest X-ray
  • Doppler ultrasound
  • Echocardiogram
  • Computed tomography (CT) angiogram*
  • Ventilation/Perfusion (VQ) scan*
  • Pulmonary angiogram

* Most common imaging studies for diagnosing pulmonary embolism

Even though pulmonary emboli can be very dangerous, they often respond well to prompt treatment. Your physician may administer medications such as clot-dissolving drugs to break up a clot. He or she may also prescribe anticoagulants (blood thinners) to help prevent the blood from clotting further and forming new clots. In serious cases, you might need surgery to remove a large, life-threatening clot.

Prevention is Key

There’s much you can do to help prevent new pulmonary embolisms from occurring. Get plenty of physical activity to keep blood flowing smoothing. You may also want to wear compression stockings, which provide steady pressure to your legs and promote optimal circulation. Elevate your legs when possible. When traveling or sitting for long periods of time, get up and walk around every hour or so and do a few deep knee bends. Flex your ankles, move your legs, and don’t keep your legs crossed. And drink plenty of water, since dehydration can contribute to blood clot formation.

To learn more about pulmonary embolisms and their relationship with DVT and pulmonary hypertension, visit the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute website.