Pulmonary Embolism


  • Most emboli -> proximal DVT of lower extremities above the knee (MC: ileofemoral DVT)
  • DVT dislodges -> vena cava -> right heart -> pulmonary circulation -> obstruct part of the pulmonary artery -> ↑ alveolar dead space (hypoxemia + hypercarbia -> tachypnea) -> vascular constriction -> pulmonary hypertension
  • When 50% of lung vasculature is involved -> ↑ RV workload -> right-sided HF
  • Massive PE: when > 2\3 of one lung is involved

PE 1


High risk:

  • Age (>60), obesity
  • Recent surgery (esp orthopedic)
  • Cancer history
  • Immobile pts (esp hospitalized), travelling
  • Acquired thrombophilia: lupus anticoagulant, nephrotic (loss of antithrombin III), oral contraceptives
  • Inherited thrombophilia: factor V Leiden mutation, protein C and S def, antithrombin III def
  • Pregnancy: risk continues until 2 months after delivery


Clinical presentation:

  • Sudden onset of dyspnea and tachypnea
  • Cough
  • Pleuritic chest pain
  • Hemoptysis (only w\ infarction; rare bc of lung’s dual circulation ‘bronchial + pulmonary’)
  • Thigh or calf swelling
  • Syncope in large PE
  • PE: rales tachycardia, S4, shock in massive PE, low-grade fever, ↓ BS, dull percussion

PE 2



» If high clinical suspicion -> start anti-coagulant (don’t wait for test results)

PE 3

ABG: hypoxemia, ↑ A-a gradient, respiratory alkalosis

D-dimer: most sensitive for thromboembolic ds. Useful as an adjunct test in a low-risk pts. Little value if pretest probability is high


  • Normal, atelectasis, pleural effusion, hemi diaphragm elevation
  • Westermark sign: lack of vascular markings (oligemia) distal to PE
  • Hampton bump: wedge-shaped infiltrate due to pulmonary infarct

CT angio: initial test for PE

  • Positive -> 100% treat PE
  • Negative -> consider peripheral PE

Pulmonary angiogram: gold standard -> filling defect

  • Negative angiogram excludes clinically relevant PE

Duplex US: for DVT

V\Q scan: in PE; perfusion defect w\ normal ventilation.

  • Normal -> rule out PE
  • High-probability -> treat w\ heparin
  • Low\intermediate-probability -> go with the clinical suspicion
  • Low clinical suspicion -> rule out PE
  • High clinical suspicion -> do duplex US
  • Positive duplex -> treat DVT (same as PE)
  • Negative\uncertain duplex -> do pulmonary angio

    PE 8

ECG: most commonly sinus tachycardia, or evidence of right heart strain (due to pulmonary HTN) -> large S wave in lead I,  deep Q wave in lead III, T wave inversion in lead III “S1, Q3, T3




» Heparin (LMWH or unfractionated) + warfarin for 5-7 days (or until therapeutic INR) -> then continue on warfarin for 6 mo

  • A pt w\ recurrent PE or DVT despite heparin treatment? Consider Heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (which, paradoxically, is associated with thromboembolic events after giving heparin for 5-7 days) (occurs in both unfractionated and LWMH ‘but less’)
  • What to do? Monitor plt while on heparin and stop it if plt ↓ by < 50% -> give new anti-coagulants (Argatroban or Lepirudin)
  • In pts w\ preexisting protein C deficiency -> warfarin skin necrosis (bc protein C has a shorter half-life than factors 1972 -> “transient hypercoagulable state”PE 9


  • Contraindication: eye\neurosurgery -> use IVC filter (placed below the renal veins to prevent renal V thrombosis)


» If massive PE: defined as hemodynamically unstable by either:

  1. Hypotension (systolic <90)
  2. A drop in BP > 40 mmHg persisting for > 15 mins
  • Treatment: give thrombolytics (tPA, streptokinase)


» Intermediate PE: defined as hemodynamically stable + either or both of:

  1. Right heart strain by echo
  2. Positive cardiac enzymes


  • To prevent chronic swelling w\ DVT (post-thrombotic \postphlebitic syndrome)? Compression stockings
  • Fat embolism (3 days after long bone fracture; acute dyspnea, petchiae in neck + axilla, confusion) -> supportive treatment (no anticoagulation)
  • Duration of treatment: minimum of 3 mo -> then asses risk of bleeding -> if none; continue for another 3 mo
  • The risk of recurrence if unprovoked: in 1 yr is 10%, in 5 yrs is 30%, in 10 yrs is 50%



Download the PDF version: here


  • Toronto notes
  • The Johns Hopkins Internal Medicine Board Review
  • Master the boards
  • Step up to medicine

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