Pulmonary Embolism Symptoms
What is a pulmonary embolism?
An embolus is a free-moving mass that forms within the circulatory system (arteries and veins). An embolism is the event that occurs when an embolus blocks one of the pathways of the circulatory system. Therefore, a pulmonary embolism is the blockage of an artery of the lungs by an embolus. An embolus is different from a thrombus because an embolus blocks in a site different from where it is formed, whereas a thrombus blocks at its site of origin. Pulmonary embolisms often result from blood clots that form in the legs and are then dislodged and travel to the lungs. Given that pulmonary embolisms are a common complication from deep vein thrombosis, clothing in the deepest veins that are furthest from the surface of the skin, health care professionals often refer to the conditions jointly as venous thromboembolism.
Pulmonary embolisms can occur in health or non-healthy individuals. However, just as with any other medical complication there are risk factors that can greatly increase the chances of it occurring. The risk factors for pulmonary embolism are commonly noted as risk factors for other medical complications and include immobility, age, past medical history, lifestyle, and incidence of surgery.
The human body needs to be constantly moving to promote good circulation of blood throughout the body. Given that blood clots resulting in pulmonary embolisms often form in the legs, it is easy to understand how prolonged immobility (bed rest, long periods of sitting, etc.) can increase one’s likelihood of having a pulmonary embolism. There are different ways in which one can attempt to decrease this risk factor, including leg exercises through physical therapy and walking around to stretch your legs on extended journeys.
Older adults are at a higher risk given decreases valve function, risk for dehydration, and incidence of other medical complications. Valve malfunction can increase the risk of forming blood clots, which can then dislodge and make its way to the lungs. These valves that keep blood circulating in the right direction and at the right speed often deteriorate with age. The elderly are often at risk for dehydration, either as a result of decreased desire to drink, forgetting to drink with dementia, or because of medicines that cause dehydration. Regardless, this is a serious complication that can thicken blood and increase formation of clots. Lastly, as people age the number of medical complications they have increases. Some of these can increase risk for clot, including heart disease, cancer, or need for surgery.
There are three lifestyle behaviors that can also increase risk for developing clots, smoking, overweight/obesity, and supplemental estrogen. While reasons that smoking can cause blood clots are not understood, it is still a very real risk factor. Being overweight/obese is correlated with increased blood pressure and decreased physical activity. Finally, birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy can increase clothing factors.
Finally, surgeries involving bone replacement have the risk of having debris entering the blood stream. This debris can then form clots that with increased immobility can further complicate risk for pulmonary embolism.
There are a few symptoms associated with having a pulmonary embolism. These include shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing and wheezing, and being light headed or feeling faint. Shortness of breath does not need to occur when you are active and can happen at rest and very suddenly. Sometimes individuals feel as if they are having a heart attack because the pain can be so deep. It worsens with exercise and ceases with rest. If this is a symptom you exhibit, you might sense having an irregular heartbeat. While you might be unsure of what is the cause of these symptoms, pulmonary embolisms are serious and require immediate medical attention. If you experience these symptoms without explanation, it is recommended to call your doctor immediately.
Pulmonary embolisms can either be treated with mediation or through surgery. The most commonly administered medicine is anticoagulants, including heparin and warfarin. These are useful in preventing further clots from developing. Thrombolytics work to dissolve clots currently formed in the circulatory system. This class of drugs has a much higher risk factor than do anticoagulants and can cause severe bleeding. Thrombolytics are typically only used in severe life-threatening situations.
Two procedures that are used to clean clots include clot removal and vein filter. Clots can be removed by being suctioned out with a thing flexible catheter. Doctors can thread the catheter through the blood vessels to the site of the clot and remove the clot. The procedure if fairly complex and is not always successful. A vein filter is sometimes placed in individuals who are unable to take anticoagulants. A vein filter is placed in the inferior vena cava, the main vein connecting the legs to the right side of the heart. The filter is able to catch blood clots moving to the lungs.
A pulmonary embolism can be a very serious life-threatening event. It is important to take precautions to reduce your risk of developing an embolism. Simple precautions include exercise or physical activity if you are immobile, taking breaks to stretch during period of long vacation, and smoking cessation. Having a pulmonary embolism is a good indicator of having events in the future. Thus, it is important to take proper medication as prescribed by your doctor, possibly including blood thinners. Finally, if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above, please contact your physician immediately.