A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot moves through the bloodstream and becomes lodged in a blood vessel in the lungs. Similarly, in a condition called deep vein thrombosis, clots form in the deep veins of the body, usually in the legs. A blood clot that breaks free and travels through a blood vessel is called an embolism. In either case, you’ll need medical treatment right away to prevent a blood clot from blocking blood flow to your lungs or your heart.
According to the CDC, between 60,000 and 100,000 Americans die every year from deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism and as many as 900,000 people could be affected.
Sometimes these conditions are present with no symptoms at all. Otherwise, symptoms may include swelling, pain, and tenderness, often in the legs. Risk factors include hormone therapy, pregnancy, and extended periods of immobility such as a long car or plane trip.
Symptoms of Deep Vein Thrombosis or Pulmonary Embolism
Call your doctor right away if you have these DVT symptoms, especially if they appear suddenly:
- Swelling in one or both legs
- Pain or tenderness in your leg, ankle, foot, or arm. It might feel like a cramp or charley horse that you can’t get rid of. Leg and foot pain might only happen when you stand or walk.
- Warm skin on your leg
- Red or discolored skin on your leg
- Veins that are swollen, red, hard, or tender to the touch that you can see
Symptoms of an urgent condition include:
- Sudden coughing, which may bring up blood
- Sharp chest pain or chest tightness
- Pain in your shoulder, arm, back, or jaw
- Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain when you breathe
- Severe lightheadedness
- Fast heartbeat
Tests Your Doctor May Order to Diagnose Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) or Pulmonary Embolism (PE)
Your doctor will usually begin by obtaining your medical history, as this may provide information about factors that caused the clot. In addition to performing a physical exam, your doctor may order one or more of the following tests:
- Blood tests, such as D-dimer: This test looks for a protein that shows up in your blood when a clot starts to break down. If you have a clot, levels will be high.
- Chest x-ray
- CT Angiography: This non-invasive CT scan uses x-rays and an iodine-containing contrast material to produce pictures of the chest highlighting the blood vessels in the chest and lungs.
- ECG (electrocardiography)
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): You’ll lie still on a table while radio waves and a strong magnetic field make detailed pictures of the inside of your body on a computer. (You’ll hear loud tapping or knocking sounds during the test.) You might need to get an injection of contrast material to make your blood vessels show up better. An MRI can find DVT in your pelvis and thigh.
- Venous ultrasound: This test uses sound waves to confirm the presence of a blood clot. Doppler ultrasound is a special technique that allows the doctor to see and evaluate blood flow through arteries and veins throughout your body. If the results are inconclusive, your doctor may use venography or MR angiography.
- Venography: This is a special X-ray. The doctor injects a radioactive dye into a vein on the top of your foot to help them see your veins and maybe a clot.
- V/Q Lung scan: This nuclear medicine exam uses a small amount of radioactive material (called a radiotracer) and a special camera to create pictures that show how blood and air are flowing throughout the lungs.
Learn More About DVT, PE, Blood Clots
- Common Ultrasound Exams and How They Help
- All About Ultrasounds at Doctors Imaging
- Symptoms of DVT by WebMD.com
- All About Pulmonary Embolism by RadiologyInfo.org
- Radiologist Explains CT (CAT Scan) for Pulmonary Embolism by RadiologyInfo.org