Blood travels from the heart to the lungs through the pulmonary artery and its branches. Once the blood reaches the lungs, it becomes oxygenated and travels back into the heart where it is then pumped out to the rest of the body. The oxygen exchange which occurs in the lung is essential to supplying our body with the oxygen-rich blood needed to keep us alive.
A Pulmonary Embolism (PE) is a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when a blood clot travels from another portion of the body and blocks blood flow to the pulmonary artery or one of its branches.
It is estimated that 90% of these clots, otherwise known as deep vein thromboses (DVTs), originate in the deep veins of the leg. While most of these clots dissolve naturally, if a DVT dislodges from the wall of the vein where it formed and is attached, it can travel to the heart. If large enough, the DVT will become stuck in the pulmonary artery or one of its branches, thereby causing partial or complete blood flow obstruction to the lungs. This is a life-threatening situation.
Because DVTs occur in the leg, it is essential that a doctor recognize the signs and symptoms of a DVT. This includes leg swelling (most often in the calf region), pain and tenderness and reddish discoloration that is warm to the touch. The presence of a DVT can be diagnosed by an ultrasound, a painless and noninvasive test that takes a short time to perform.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s estimate, between 350,000 and 600,000 patients suffer DVTs and PEs each year in the United States. These DVTs and PEs result in excess of 100,000 deaths annually. Tragically, the vast majority of these deaths were preventable with early diagnosis and treatment.
Some PE victims may experience PE symptoms while others may experience no symptoms at all. In addition, some PE victims experience DVT symptoms only. Because a PE is a medical emergency, it is important to seek medical attention if PE or DVT symptoms occur. Symptoms of a PE can include:
- Chest pain.
- Sudden shortness of breath or trouble breathing.
- Cough or cough with blood.
- Irregular heartbeat (arrythmia).
- Dizziness, light-headedness or fainting.
- Bluish tint to skin or paleness.
- Increased or repaid breathing.
- Increased heart rate.