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What are the causes and risk factors for pulmonary embolism?

Pulmonary embolus is the end result of a deep vein thrombosis or blood clot elsewhere in the body. Most commonly, the DVT begins in the leg, but they also can occur in veins within the abdominal cavity or in the arms.

The risk factors for a pulmonary embolism are the same as the risk factors for deep vein thrombosis. These are referred to as Virchow's triad and include:

  • prolonged immobilization or alterations in normal blood flow (stasis)
  • increased clotting potential of the blood (hypercoagulability)
  • damage to the walls of the veins.

Examples of these include the following:

Prolonged immobilization

  • Extended travel (sitting in a car, airplane, train, etc.)
  • Hospitalization or prolonged bed rest

Increased blood clotting potential

  • Medications: birth control pills, estrogen
  • Smoking
  • Genetic predisposition: most commonly, Factor V Leiden deficiency, MHFTHR mutation, Protein C or Protein S deficiencies or anitithrobin III deficiency
  • Polycythemia (increased number of red blood cells, the opposite of anemia)
  • Cancer
  • Pregnancy, including the postpartum period up to 6 to 8 weeks after delivery
  • Surgery

Damage to vessel wall

  • Prior deep venous thrombosis
  • Trauma to the lower leg with or without surgery or casting
Return to Pulmonary Embolism (Blood Clot in the Lung)

See what others are saying

Comment from: Gladys, 65-74 Female (Patient) Published: November 25

I had knee surgery for the 4th time. I began to feel a hot spot on my left calf and had an unremarkable ultrasound. One morning as I was reading the paper, I thought I felt some chest pain. As a dental hygienist, I have learned to pay attention. I took a 325 mg aspirin and really paid attention. Next, within a short time I felt like I had pneumonia but didn't have a cold. I have had pneumonia before. Within a short time I felt pain in my back. At that point my son took my blood pressure which is normally 115/63 most of the time, and it was 179/117. My husband took me to the hospital and after a CAT scan, I learned I had pulmonary emboli. Doctors immediately started heparin and immediately was admitted. I was told most people do not live through this. I am so grateful. I needed to be able to continue raising my grandson, but I am still spooked by this and continue to wonder if it will happen again.

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