'
Health & Diving
The Heart & Diving

The Heart & Diving

Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism (PE) is an obstruction (or "embolus") that lodges in the vasculature of the pulmonary system, or lungs. The embolus may be air, fat or a blood clot (or "thrombus"). If a PE is caused by a thrombus, the clot typically originated in the deep vein system of the legs — a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT); see "Deep Vein Thrombosis" for a discussion of DVT. The resulting obstruction in the flow of blood to the lungs typically causes a drop in cardiac output and a significant drop in blood pressure.


The onset of PE can be acute or chronic. Acute PE often causes symptoms evident to the individual, while chronic-onset PE frequently reveals its presence only with very subtle findings that went unnoticed by the affected individual. An untreated PE has a high mortality rate. An especially grim prognosis applies to individuals who have a concurrent DVT, right ventricular thrombus or right ventricular dysfunction. An estimated 1.5 percent of all deaths are diagnosed as being due to PE.

Risk factors for DVT — and thus for PE — include recent surgery; a stroke; a diagnosis of autoimmune disease, malignancy or heart disease; obesity; smoking; hypertension; and a previous DVT.

Symptoms of PE include chest pain (also known as "dyspnea"), pain or swelling of the calf (signaling a DVT), hypotension (abnormally low blood pressure), an altered level of consciousness and syncope (fainting). Distension of the neck veins in the absence of other conditions — such as pneumothorax (a buildup of air in the membrane surrounding the lungs, sometimes referred to as a collapsed lung) or heart failure — may also be observed in individuals suffering a PE.

PE should be one of the first conditions considered when attempting to make a diagnosis in someone exhibiting acute onset of any of the symptoms listed above and any of the associated risk factors. Appropriate diagnostic tests may include measurement of the individual's levels of a hormone called brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) and of a protein known as cardiac troponin, as well as a CT angiogram of the lungs.

Treatment should focus initially on managing the significant cardiopulmonary impairments that are usually involved in a PE. Such care may include breathing support from an artificial ventilator and fluid management. The use of anticoagulant medication is also important, both to treat the embolus and to stop the development of another thrombus. Thrombolysis (known as "clot-busting"), embolectomy (surgical removal of the embolus) or the placement in the vena cava (one of the large vessels in the chest) of a filter designed to prevent any future clots from reaching the lungs may also be considered — especially in anyone who goes into shock, because mortality in such cases approaches 50 percent. Similar measures may be called for in cases of PE caused by a venous gas bubble. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be indicated as well, if the individual's condition does not improve or deteriorates even after the application of supportive measures.

Effect on Diving

Despite many medical advances, five-year all-cause mortality in individuals who have suffered a PE due to underlying risk factors remains more than 30 percent. And pulmonary hypertension — elevated pressure in the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the lungs, a condition that limits one's exercise capacity — often persists in individuals who have had a PE, even after successful treatment. Thus any determination of fitness for diving by those who have had a PE must include an evaluation of their lung function, underlying conditions, anticoagulation status, exercise capacity and cardiac status.
More Questions? Ask a DAN Medic