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Diagnosing And Treating A Pulmonary Embolism

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Yale Rosen
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Pulmonary embolism is the third leading cause of cardiovascular death in the United States after heart attack and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But “PE” is also treatable and preventable, so why does the mortality rate continue to climb?

Late detection is most often to blame, according to Raymond Benza, medical director of the Pulmonary Hypertension and Thromboendarterectomy Program at Allegheny General Hospital. Many of PE’s symptoms, such as shortness of breath and chest pain, mirror those of other common diseases making it difficult to diagnose.

Embolisms occur when blood clots block arteries. These clots often form in the legs and travel to the lungs, where their presence increases pressure on the heart’s right ventricle. Periods of long inactivity, recent surgery and genetic background can also increase the likelihood of PE, Benza said.

“In the veins, blood flow is accelerated by the action of the muscles on the blood vessels,” Benza said. “Blood can stagnate in the veins and very common conditions like plane rides or car rides are often the cause of these things.”

Eric Bihler, pulmonary and critical care specialist at Allegheny General Hospital, said medical professionals are developing advanced methods of identifying and diagnosing PE. He suggests the online Pulmonary Embolism Severity Index for those worried they may be vulnerable.

AGH recently updated their approach, Bihler said, including a team of analyzing experts and advanced CT scan capability. For treatment, patients are administered anticoagulants to break up the clots.

Bihler said the disease often affects seemingly healthy people, which is another reason it’s so difficult to recognize. He encouraged anyone who experiences abnormal breathing or has blood-spotted coughs to get checked at the hospital.

Health care coverage on 90.5 WESA is made possible in part by a grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer of Pittsburgh Explainer and our Good Question! series. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm
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