Pulmonary Embolism: Diagnosis, Investigations, Clinical Indicators, and Management

Dr. F. Shah


Pulmonary embolism (PE) denotes a critical medical circumstance characterized by the migration of a thrombus, usually arising from deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in the lower extremities or pelvis, to obstruct blood flow within the pulmonary arteries. Swift identification, precise diagnosis, and timely intervention are paramount to mitigate the morbidity and mortality associated with this condition. This article comprehensively examines PE, encompassing its diagnostic techniques, investigative protocols, prevalent clinical indicators, scoring systems, and optimal management strategies.



The diagnostic trajectory of pulmonary embolism is intricate due to its propensity to imitate other prevalent clinical entities. Key clinical manifestations include the sudden emergence of dyspnea, pleuritic chest pain that exacerbates during inspiration or coughing, and tachycardia. However, these indications are non-discriminatory and often overlap with various alternative medical scenarios, necessitating an exhaustive diagnostic framework.


Common Clinical Indicators:

PE can elicit an array of clinical indicators, varying in severity and presentation:

- Acute Dyspnea: Affected individuals frequently manifest abrupt, unprovoked breathlessness, which may exacerbate upon physical exertion.

- Pleuritic Chest Pain: A prevalent symptom characterized by a sharp discomfort in the chest, exacerbated by deep inspiration, coughing, or sneezing.

- Tachycardia: A rapid, irregular heartbeat (palpitations) ensues, primarily in response to the reduced oxygen delivery resulting from obstructed blood flow.

- Persistent Cough: Some patients develop a sustained cough that may produce hemoptysis or blood-streaked sputum.

- Presyncope/Dizziness: Diminished cerebral perfusion due to compromised blood flow can precipitate feelings of dizziness or near-fainting.

- Syncope: In severe instances, inadequate cerebral perfusion may culminate in syncopal episodes.


Scoring Systems for Diagnosis:

1. Wells Criteria:

This scoring system assesses pretest probability, incorporating clinical indicators and risk factors. A higher score indicates a greater likelihood of PE.

  1. - Clinical Signs and Symptoms: e.g., Clinical signs of deep vein thrombosis (3.0), Alternative diagnosis less likely than PE (3.0)
  2. - Heart Rate ≥100 bpm (1.5)
  3. - Immobilization/surgery within 4 weeks (1.5)
  4. - Previous DVT/PE (1.5)
  5. - Hemoptysis (1.0)
  6. - Malignancy (1.0)


2. Revised Geneva Score: 

This scoring system evaluates clinical indicators and risk factors, guiding subsequent diagnostic actions.

  1. - Clinical signs of DVT or PE (3 points)
  2. - Heart rate ≥75 bpm (3 points)
  3. - Recent immobilization (3 points)
  4. - Recent surgery (2 points)
  5. - Hemoptysis (2 points)
  6. - Age ≥65 years (1 point)



1. D-Dimer Assay: The D-dimer assay serves as an initial screening tool of significance. Elevation in D-dimer levels suggests the presence of products stemming from clot degradation, necessitating supplementary exploration. It is imperative, however, to acknowledge that augmented D-dimer levels may also manifest in diverse other clinical scenarios such as infection and inflammation.


2. Imaging Techniques:

   - Computed Tomography Pulmonary Angiography (CTPA): This imaging modality reigns supreme in PE diagnosis. It entails the injection of contrast dye intravenously, followed by a chest computed tomography (CT) scan. CTPA adeptly discerns pulmonary arterial blood clots and facilitates the assessment of obstruction extent.

CTPA in pulmonary embolism patient

CTPA (above): A large pulmonary embolism at the bifurcation of the pulmonary artery (saddle embolism).

   - Ventilation/Perfusion (V/Q) Scintigraphy: Particularly useful in instances contraindicated for contrast agents, this nuclear medicine procedure evaluates air and blood distribution within the lungs, highlighting regions featuring compromised blood flow resultant from embolic occlusions.

ventricular- perfusion scan

V/Q Scan: Ventilation-perfusion scintigraphy in a woman taking oral contraceptives and valdecoxib.
This and other views showed decreased activity in the following regions: apical segment of right upper lobe, anterior segment of right upper lobe, superior segment of right lower lobe, posterior basal segment of right lower lobe, anteromedial basal segment of left lower lobe, and lateral basal segment of left lower lobe.

   - Chest Radiography: While not definitive for PE diagnosis, a chest X-ray can be instrumental in excluding alternative conditions mimicking PE manifestations, such as pneumonia or pneumothorax.



PE management is geared towards impeding further thrombus formation, stabilizing patient status, and resolving extant thrombi. Management strategies encompass:


1. Anticoagulation Regimens: Central to PE treatment, anticoagulant administration curtails clot advancement and facilitates natural thrombus dissolution. Conventional anticoagulants include heparin, enoxaparin, and warfarin. Novel oral anticoagulants (NOACs) have garnered favor owing to their user-friendliness and predictable effects.


2. Thrombolytic Therapy: In instances of hemodynamic instability, thrombolytic therapy may be contemplated to expedite thrombus dissolution. Notably, this approach bears heightened bleeding risks and is reserved for meticulously chosen candidates.


3. Inferior Vena Cava (IVC) Filters: In instances where anticoagulation is untenable or recurrent PE persists despite optimal therapy, IVC filter implantation can serve to capture clots, averting their migration to the pulmonary vasculature.


4. Gradient Compression Stockings: Recommended to avert post-thrombotic syndrome, these stockings mitigate the likelihood of this complication following PE.


Pulmonary embolism, a grave clinical entity, demands vigilant clinical acumen, rapid diagnostic assessment, and timely intervention. The evolution of diagnostic imaging and anticoagulation strategies has engendered improved patient outcomes. Collaborative endeavors amongst healthcare professionals and steadfast adherence to evidence-based protocols remain pivotal in effectively managing this condition, circumventing its potentially catastrophic repercussions.

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