5 Things To Know About Pulmonary Embolisms

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A pulmonary embolism, if diagnosed and treated correctly, could dissolve on its own. However, if left untreated, it can be a grave health risk and lead to other health complications. In some cases, it could even result in death. 

When a blood clot develops in a vein and remains there, it is called a thrombus. Once the clot dislodges from the wall of the vein and moves to another part of your body, it is called an embolus. 

A pulmonary embolism is caused by a blood clot originating from a body part, usually the legs or arms, finding its way to the lung and becoming lodged in its vessels, thereby blocking blood flow. 

1. There Are A Few Causes 

Blood clotting is a normal healing process that prevents bleeding. Typically, your body makes blood clots and then breaks them down. Complications arise when your body is unable to break down a clot. Also, when blood clots in a vein, it could be due to another issue, like slowed blood flow, an abnormality in clot forming, or from an injury to the blood vessel wall. 

Blood clots can form in either arteries or veins (venous clots). Veins of the legs can be superficial veins (close to the surface of the skin) or deep veins (located near the bone and surrounded by muscle). 

Venous clots most often happen in the deep veins of the legs, those closer to the bone and surrounded by muscle. These clots are called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Once a clot has formed in the deep veins of the leg, part of the clot will likely break off. The clot can then travel through the blood to another area of the body, often the lung. 

DVT is the most common cause of pulmonary embolism. Some other less common causes of a pulmonary embolism are: 

● A fat embolus (often due to the breaking of a large bone) 
● Amniotic fluid embolus 
● Air bubbles 
● Deep vein thrombosis in the upper body 
● Clots on an indwelling intravenous (IV) catheter that break off and travel to the lungs 

2. Some People Are More At Risk Than Others 

What can cause your blood to clot, thrombus, in the first place? Thrombus may occur in people who: 

● Have a personal or family history of blood clotting disorders like pulmonary embolism (PE) or deep vein thrombosis (DVT) 
● Have been inactive or immobile for a long time; for example, those on bed rest or from surgery. 
● Sit for long periods 
● Have a history of cancer or are undergoing chemotherapy 

People who are most likely to develop a pulmonary embolism are those who: 

● Are inactive during long travel by car, train, or plane. 
● Have had heart failure or a stroke 
● Have recently given birth in the last six weeks 
● Are using birth control pills (oral contraceptives) or hormone replacement therapy. 
● Are overweight or obese 
● Have recently had trauma or damage done to a vein for example through a recent surgery, fracture or varicose veins 
● Have had a placement of central venous catheters through the arm or leg 

If any of the above factors apply to you, and you have had a blood clot, you should talk to your doctor. They can help you reduce health risks. 

3. What does PE feel like? 

Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism are: 

● Sudden shortness of breath, this happens whether you have been active or inactive 
● Wheezing 
● Excessive sweating 
● Skin becomes pale, clammy or bluish 
● An inexplicable sharp pain in your chest, arm, shoulder, neck, or jaw. The pain experienced may also be similar to symptoms of a heart attack. 
● A rapid heartbeat or pulse 
● A cough that may or may not have bloody sputum (mucus). 
● Sometimes you may feel a bit anxious, light-headed, faint, or feel like passing out. 

Keep in mind that it is also possible to have a blood clot and not exhibit any symptoms. 

4. Exercise Is The Easiest Way To Prevent Clots 

Regular exercise is highly recommended. It is essential to continuously stay active and avoid staying still for too long, especially when going for long travels. Even simple walks can go a long way, but if you can't move around, then simple heel-toe exercises and circling your feet can help. You can help prevent a PE by: 

● If you're traveling, drink lots of water and loose-fitting clothing. If possible, get up and move around every hour. 
● Compression stockings 
● Keeping a healthy weight 
● Eating a healthy diet 
● Taking medicines as prescribed 
● Not smoking 
● If you are going to take hormones during or after pregnancy, then talk to your doctor about the risks of clotting 
● Keep heart failure, diabetes, or any other health issues as stable as possible 

5. Pulmonary Embolisms Are Treatable 

Pulmonary embolism is treatable. PE treatment options include: 

1. Anticoagulants or blood thinners – Medication that serves the purpose of thinning blood so the blood becomes too thin to clot. 

2. Fibrinolytic therapy or clot busters – Activates plasminogen, resulting in plasmin formation, which cleaves the fibrin cross-links causing thrombus breakdown. 

3. PE therapy by EKOS – A minimally invasive procedure involving ultrasonic waves, which help drive PE drugs deeper into the clot and unwind the fibrin to expose plasminogen receptor sites. 

4. Vena cava filter – Placement of a filtering device within the Inferior Vena Cava (IVC), a large vein in the abdomen that returns blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. IVC filters trap large clots to prevent them from reaching the heart and lungs. 

5. Pulmonary embolectomy – A major surgery requiring heart-lung bypass machine that removes a pulmonary embolism. Often this is a last resort when the PE is very large, the patient either cannot receive other options due to other medical conditions or has not responded to those treatments, or the patient is unstable. 

6. Percutaneous thrombectomy – A catheter is inserted into the site of the embolism and breaks up the embolism or extracts it. 

An important aspect of treating a PE is treatment to prevent more embolism. 

Pulmonary Embolisms Recap

Pulmonary embolism is caused by blood clots finding their way to lungs. It can be caught by people who have a medical history of PE, heart ailments, and those who stay still for long periods. It is a treatable and manageable medical condition if the diagnosis is early, and you follow the doctor's orders.

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