Trauma Survivors Network - provided by ATS

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Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary refers to the lung. Embolism refers to either fat, air, or a blood clot in an artery or vein. Therefore, a pulmonary embolism is a clot in the lung. It is a common complication in hospitalized patients. It is usually caused by a blood clot that travels from the leg or pelvic veins through the bloodstream to the lungs. It is difficult to diagnose and can cause sudden death. 

Signs & Symptoms

Signs and symptoms include but are not limited too:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Fast heart rate
  • Cough with bloody secretions
  • Low grade fever
  • Legs swelling
  • Bluish skin
  • In some cases no signs or symptoms are seen.  


Diagnosis is based on a physical exam, chest x-ray, CT scan of the lung, lab values, and other lung function tests. Prevention and Treatment

The risk of getting a pulmonary embolism can be reduced by:

  • Giving blood-thinning drugs (Lovenox or Heparin)
  • Having the patient wear elastic stockings (TED hose)
  • Sequential compression stockings (SCD’s)
  • Turning the patient every two hours
  • Encouraging cough and deep-breathing exercises
  • Primary treatment involves giving high doses of oxygen. 

The patient may also receive clot-dissolving drugs; however, trauma patients have a high risk of bleeding and may not be able to receive these drugs. In most cases these patients will require an operation to insert a device that filters blood to the heart and lungs. Source Citation: “Pulmonary embolism.” Lori De Milto, A.M. The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Second Edition. Jacqueline L. Longe, Editor. 5 vols. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2001.