Pulmonary Embolism: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

SmartEm Research Team
November 8, 2018

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage of the main artery of the lungs, which deprives that section of lung tissue from receiving adequate oxygenation. This condition can be fatal if not treated within several hours. An acute pulmonary embolism needs to have blood clots removed because it prevents oxygenated blood reaching that area and stimulates further clotting.

Symptoms of pulmonary embolism

The condition is usually painless and can go unnoticed by people who have one. Symptoms include: difficulty breathing, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, coughing or low oxygen levels in the blood. Symptoms may not always be present because they are quite mild when there is only a partial blockage. Severe symptoms are breathlessness, also called dyspnea, chest pain and a feeling of anxiety or panic due to low oxygen levels in the blood.

Causes of pulmonary embolism

The most common cause is blood clots that form outside the body, which travel by way of the bloodstream until they block the major artery of the lungs. Another cause that is less frequently seen are blood clots that come from inside the body, which move towards the lungs via the bloodstream. The most common risk factors are: having a long-term condition such as cancer Diabetes HIV/AIDS A recent surgery or injury Older age Having varicose veins Smoking


A physical exam and blood tests are done first. Then, an X-ray of the arteries is necessary to confirm the presence of blood clot in one or more vessels. An ultrasound may also be performed for pulmonary embolism diagnosis if there is no obvious sign of a clot on X-rays. Arterial blood gas measurements are needed to check for low levels of oxygen in the blood and to confirm the diagnosis. This is followed by a D-dimer test, which examines whether or not any blood clots have been formed within the body.


To treat pulmonary embolism, there are several options:

Superficial thrombophlebitis: If the clot stays near the surface of the body, it is called superfiicous thrombophlebitis. It is not life-threatening and may be treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or heparin to dissolve the blood clots. This condition usually clears in a few weeks.

Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) or PE: If there is clot formation in the deep veins of legs, it is called DVT. Usually, blood clots dissolve naturally and do not require medical intervention. However, if they grow large enough to block the flow of blood, that requires treatment with anticoagulants like heparin. If the clot travels to lungs and blocks the arteries, it is called pulmonary embolism (PE). Treatment for PE involves anticoagulants, blood thinning drugs to break up clots.

Surgery: When a patient has multiple blood clots or massive pulmonary embolism in one lung, treatment includes surgical removal of the clot.


Wearing elastic compression stockings to prevent blood clots in the legs, quitting smoking and regular exercise are some of the preventive methods for pulmonary embolism. Patients who are confined to bed rest or have a long-term illness need to minimize chances of blood clots by doing leg exercises and taking medications that thin the blood.


Pulmonary embolism is not curable but can be treated successfully with medical intervention. There are several preventive measures for pulmonary embolism, including quitting smoking, using compression stockings and doing regular exercise.

A pulmonary embolism is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate treatment. Proper diagnosis and prompt treatment can reduce the possibility of death. The treatment for pulmonary embolism depends on severity and includes medication, surgery or even blood thinners administered in the hospital to prevent more serious complications.

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