A pulmonary embolism occurs when blood clots block one or more of the arteries to your lungs.
Pulmonary embolisms cause death in about 1 in 10 people who have them and are the leading cause of death among people in the hospital. Prompt diagnosis and treatment greatly increases a person's chances of surviving a pulmonary embolism.
To request an appointment, contact the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute:
A pulmonary embolism occurs when blood clots form — often in the deep veins of the legs — and travel through the blood stream blocking one or more of the arteries in your lungs.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) causes the type of blood clot that most frequently lodges in a lung artery. Most often DVT occurs in the legs but can also form in the arms.
Risk factors for pulmonary embolism and DVT include:
Other risks include:
In patients who survive pulmonary embolism, a dangerous condition called pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs' arteries) can develop as a result of the blocked arteries in the lungs.
In pulmonary hypertension, the right side of the heart must pump harder than it usually does to keep enough blood flowing through the body. Over time, the heart can become enlarged to compensate. The enlarged heart eventually pumps blood more slowly and less effectively than a healthy heart and may begin to fail.
At the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, we combine state-of-the-art facilities and equipment with years of experience treating and researching pulmonary embolisms.
Our multidisciplinary team of pulmonary specialists, cardiologists, and cardiac and vascular surgeons, bases its treatment recommendations on the individual characteristics of each patient, including medical history and lab and imaging results.
Symptoms of pulmonary embolism include:
Tests your doctor at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute may use to diagnose a pulmonary embolism include:
Some people with pulmonary embolisms do well with blood thinners, which is the current standard of care for most patients. Others, however, experience better outcomes with more aggressive treatment and interventions aimed at dissolving the blood clot.
Anticoagulant medications, also known as blood thinners, work by preventing new blood clots in the lungs from forming and existing clots from growing larger.
You can receive these drugs as an injection, either under the skin or intravenously, or as a pill.
Anticoagulant medications may include:
Your doctor at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute may recommend a more aggressive treatment that can be administered systemically though an intravenous line or via a catheter into the clot.
After inserting a catheter (a thin, flexible tube) into a blood vessel through a tiny nick in your groin or neck, your doctor will use x-ray guidance to advance the catheter to the site of the pulmonary embolism in the lung arteries and inject clot-dissolving medication directly to the pulmonary embolism.
Your doctor may also use a clot-dissolving medication to treat your pulmonary embolism.
Your surgeon will thread a catheter through your blood vessels to the site of the embolism and extract the blood clot.
Some people may need an additional procedure — called pulmonary embolectomy — to clear the clot.
To prevent further pulmonary embolisms from developing, your doctor may place a temporary vena cava filter — a small, metal device — in the vena cava, the body's largest vein.
Vena cava filters allow blood to flow through them, but prevent clots from passing into lung arteries.
Your surgeon may place them during other minimally invasive procedures, such as thrombolysis, and remove them later when the risk of pulmonary embolism decreases.
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute offers education information and videos about pulmonary embolisms and other heart and vascular diseases and treatments.
Many people find these resources helpful in answering their questions about their condition and preparing them for their procedure or diagnostic test.
The links below will open a new browser window.
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