November 01, 2017

Pulmonary embolism

Common, life-threatening condition

Pulmonary embolism

During recovery from your hip replacement surgery, your surgical team seemed concerned about blood flow in your legs. The staff had you up and walking sooner than you had expected, and you were put on a blood-thinning medication to prevent blood clots.

These post-surgical steps may sometimes seem like a lot of fuss, but they're very important for preventing a potentially life-threatening problem called pulmonary embolism. This most commonly occurs when fragments of a blood clot (emboli) in a leg vein break loose and travel through your bloodstream to a lung. Once there, the clot fragments can become lodged in a blood vessel, cutting off critical blood flow through the lung.

This can cause damage to the lung, reduce oxygen supply to the body, and if emboli block enough of the blood supply, result in death. It’s estimated that about 60,000 to 100,000 people die of pulmonary embolism each year in the U.S. The risk of pulmonary embolism rises rapidly after age 60.

The clot thickens

Having a blood clot in a leg vein — a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT) — is the usual precursor to a pulmonary embolism. DVT typically occurs in the large veins of the legs or pelvis located deep in the muscle tissue. Veins are the blood vessels that carry oxygen-depleted blood to the right side of the heart, which then pumps blood into the lungs to once again become oxygen rich.

Most people who develop DVT are predisposed to quicker clotting for reasons that may include: