The Causes and Risks of a Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism, a blockage in one of the pulmonary arteries located in your lungs, is caused by a blood clot or clots that generally originate from the legs before travelling up to the lungs. Because these clots prevent blood from properly flowing to the lungs, they can be life-threatening if left undetected or untreated. Pulmonary embolism symptoms vary depending on how much of your lung is affected, how large the clots are, and your history of heart or lung disease. The most common symptoms include:

  • Cough: Frequent and violent coughing that can produce blood-streaked or bloody sputum.
  • Chest Pain: The pain can feel like you’re having a heart attack, and can become worse by bending over, eating, coughing, or taking deep breaths. It may also become worse through exercise or exertion, but won’t subside by resting.
  • Shortness of Breath: This mostly begins without warning, and only gets worst through exercise and exertion.

Other symptoms can include discolored or clammy skin, dizziness, excessive sweating, fever, irregular or rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness, and swelling and / or pain in the leg, most often in the calf. In most cases, pulmonary embolism is caused by several blood clots that originate in the deep veins in your legs, a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). These clots generally migrate to the lungs over time, but can travel all together in some cases.

If the sections of lung blocked off by the clots are starved of blood for long enough, they could die –known as a pulmonary infarction – and make it far more difficult for your remaining healthy lungs to provide your body with the oxygen it needs. While blood clots are the most common blockages, other substances like air bubbles, collagen, fat from marrow of a broken long bone, or part of a tumor could cause a pulmonary embolism.

Risk Factors

While anyone can develop blood clots that lead to a pulmonary embolism in the right situation, certain factors can increase your risk.

  • Surgery: This is one of the most common causes of blood clots, and your doctor should provide you with medication that prevents clotting before and after a major surgery like joint replacement.
  • Family History: If either you or a family member have had a pulmonary embolism or venous blood clot, your blood could be more prone to clotting.
  • Cancer: Cancers like breast cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and ovarian cancer, as well as most cancers with metastasis can increase your blood’s ability to clot increase your risk of a pulmonary embolism. Chemotherapy can increase this risk as well.
  • Extended Periods of Inactivity: Extended bed rest or long trips in a vehicle can affect and slow blood flow in the legs which increases the risk for clotting, especially if the legs are kept horizontal for extended periods of time.
  • Pregnancy: The fetus’ weight can press down on pelvic veins and slow blood flow returning from the lungs.
  • Obesity: Excessive weight, especially in women with high blood pressure or who are smokers, increases the risk of blood clots forming.
  • Smoking: The use of tobacco, especially when combined with other risk factors, may increase the risk of developing blood clots, though medical professionals are still unclear as to why.
  • Estrogen Supplements: The estrogen present in hormone replacement therapy and in birth control pills can increase your blood’s ability to clot, especially when combined with smoking and / or obesity.

Treatment

Doctors have a variety of options for both diagnosing and treating a pulmonary embolism, including:

  • Blood Tests: Your doctor can order these tests to check for everything from abnormal carbon dioxide or oxygen levels, as well as D dimer, a clot-dissolving substance that can indicate increased clotting if found in high enough levels.
  • Chest X-Ray: An x-ray can’t diagnose a pulmonary embolism by itself, but it can still rule out other conditions that present with similar symptoms.
  • MRI: This type of scan is generally used on pregnant women to avoid exposing the fetus to radiation, and can provide detailed imagery of the inner workings of your body.
  • Pulmonary Angiogram: This is the most accurate way to test for a pulmonary embolism, but has potentially serious risks – like kidney failure and temporary changes to your heart’s rhythm – if administered incorrectly so it is generally used as the final option once other tests have been completed. It gives your doctor a clear picture of how your blood is flowing in your lung’s arteries by injecting a special dye into your veins that can be seen via x-rays.

If your doctor detects clots forming, they can prescribe blood thinners (anticoagulants) and / or clot dissolvers (thrombolytics) to break down existing clots and to prevent new clots from forming. If a life-threatening clot is detected in your lung, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove it.

Approximately one in every three people with a pulmonary embolism that is left undiagnosed or untreated die, but properly diagnosing and treating the condition significantly increases a patient’s chance of survival. At Givens Givens Sparks, our Tampa personal injury attorneys are ready to fight for your right to seek compensation, and work on a contingency fee basis so you won’t owe us any money unless we can secure a verdict or settlement for you. Fill out our online form to request a consultation, or call us at (813) 336-3348 to speak with one of our lawyers today.

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