A pulmonary embolism is a serious medical condition that can greatly impact the quality of life in patients who experience this diagnosis. What is a pulmonary embolism, what causes this lung condition, and what are the treatment options to address this lung incident?
Today, Carda is here to discuss life after a pulmonary embolism, including what factors influence a pulmonary embolism recovery and how you can support your recovery journey. Read on to help strengthen your overall lung health.
A pulmonary embolism (PE) is a lung condition that happens when a blood clot forms in one of the arteries of your lungs, restricting or blocking blood flow. Without enough blood circulating through your lungs, the tissue can incur damage.
The blockage and its resulting inadequate pulmonary circulation can greatly diminish the oxygen supply throughout your body, which can also cause damage to your other organs and tissues. It can also cause pulmonary hypertension (increased blood pressure in your lung arteries).
The blood clot that causes a pulmonary embolism does not develop in the lungs, but in another area of the body. Most commonly, the clot forms in a blood vessel in one of your legs before breaking away and traveling to a pulmonary artery.
When a blood clot forms in one location but then travels to another area in the body, it is called an embolus. When an embolus blocks a blood vessel, which can potentially cut off the blood supply to an organ in your body, it is called an embolism.
A hallmark symptom of pulmonary embolism is shortness of breath during exertion or at rest. First, you might only notice shortness of breath that doesn't improve after exerting yourself. However, you might soon notice that your shortness of breath progressively worsens, such that you have difficulty breathing at rest too.
Other signs and symptoms of a pulmonary embolism include chest pain, dizziness, weakness, a rapid heart rate, pale or clammy skin, or a persistent cough that sometimes presents with mucus.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is the leading underlying cause of pulmonary embolism. DVT occurs when a blood clot forms in one of the deep veins in your legs before traveling to your lung arteries.
Underlying heart conditions, such as congestive heart failure, a heart attack, a heart valve disease, atrial fibrillation, or another type of cardiovascular disease, can also cause a pulmonary embolism. An underlying lung disease can also increase your risk of developing a lung embolism.
Less often, an injury to a vein can cause a pulmonary embolism. Certain people are also at a higher risk of developing blood clots, including cancer patients as well as those who take hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills.
There are several different treatment options for a pulmonary embolism that depend on how mild to severe the blood clot is and whether the clot goes away on its own.
A pulmonary embolism requires immediate medical attention to monitor the blood clot and address its symptoms. At this point, your provider may prescribe medication. If your symptoms still do not improve, they may suggest surgery as an alternative route.
Once you are discharged, your provider may refer you to a pulmonary rehabilitation program to enhance your recovery process.
The most prevalent treatment for a pulmonary embolism is an anticoagulant (blood thinner). A blood-thinning medication makes it harder for your blood to clot, which helps to prevent more blood clots from forming in the future and can also help to stop the current clot from enlarging.
While blood thinners can help prevent the pulmonary embolism blood clot from growing larger, they cannot dissolve the clot. Often, your body will naturally dissolve the clot by itself. However, this does not always occur.
In more severe cases, where a pulmonary embolism clot does not dissolve and becomes life-threatening, then surgery is a treatment option. Usually, a surgeon uses a catheter, threading it through your blood vessels to unblock the affected area. Sometimes, they may need to operate on your chest in order to access the clot quickly.
A pulmonary rehabilitation program is an outpatient program that focuses on education, exercise, and one-on-one meetings with healthcare providers to help strengthen your recovery process. Rehab can greatly enhance the quality of your life — it can strengthen your lung function as you recover from an embolism, but it can also boost your mental health and provide you with educational tools for how to continue to improve your life after recovery.
Many rehab options are in-person, but Carda offers a fully virtual rehabilitation program so that you don't even have to leave your home. Once you fill out our online form to sign up, we'll send you everything you need to participate in rehab from the comfort of your own home.
Plus, virtual rehab, which you can do on your own terms and on your own time, also has the potential to feel far more personal and empathetic. We'll pair you with a physician who will be your consistent healthcare provider throughout your lung recovery journey so that you two can build rapport and trust together.
Additionally, we'll pair you with an expert exercise physiologist who will monitor your vitals throughout your workout so that you can maintain a lung-friendly, safe exercise plan to ease back into.
The recovery period for a pulmonary embolism can last anywhere from several weeks to a few months. A couple of different factors can influence a recovery period after a pulmonary embolism, including your overall health, the severity of your embolism, and your risk of blood clots. Let’s look at each of these factors more in-depth below.
Your overall health has an influence on any recovery period, particularly when you recover from a pulmonary embolism. If you have an underlying health condition that already makes you feel weaker or less energetic, your recovery time frame for pulmonary embolism might be prolonged.
For example, if you have cancer or a thyroid disorder, which are both conditions that can present with side effects such as weakness, fatigue, or dizziness, then your recovery could take longer after a pulmonary embolism.
Additionally, if an underlying cardiac condition caused your pulmonary embolism, it could take much longer to recover as you are also dealing with a prevalent cardiac condition.
If your pulmonary embolism resolves on its own, and the only treatment you needed was close monitoring and anticoagulant medication, your recovery period will likely go by quickly. However, if your PE was more severe and you needed surgery to remove the clot, you may need to take far more time for recovery.
Your risk of developing future blood clots can also play a role in your pulmonary embolism recovery, especially because once you get a pulmonary embolism, you are more likely to develop additional blood clots in the future.
If you have a history of blood clotting, are in an older age group, or have an underlying heart condition such as heart disease or a heart attack, then you are in a high-risk group for this lung condition. These are all risk factors for developing blood clots, which can make it more common for another blood clot to form as you are recovering.
Diet changes and the gradual reintroduction of exercise are two ways to help support recovery after a pulmonary embolism. Let’s take a look at each of these next.
Eating a heart-healthy diet is also good for your lungs and can help you recover from a pulmonary embolism. Altering your diet to include lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, seeds, nuts, legumes, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy, is an important part of the recovery process from this pulmonary condition.
Additionally, it is important to limit the saturated fats and cholesterol you consume — try to limit your processed and sugary, refined food intake if you can.
Exercise helps keep your blood flowing and has many benefits to your overall lung and heart health. Walking for even 10 minutes a day can positively impact your well-being and enhance your circulation.
In the immediate days after your discharge from the hospital, you'll want to take it easy and rest. However, as you regain strength during your recovery, you can slowly start to ease into exercise. Focus on gradually re-introducing physical activity back into your routine, and be conscious not to push your body beyond its limits in this process.
A gradual reintroduction might look like several five-minute walks a week for the first week and then four or five ten to 15-minute walks for the second and third weeks of your recovery. The exact routine is very dependent on your physical needs and abilities.
Wearing compression stockings around the house and when you exercise can help support blood flow and can help make movement easier during physical activity.
You should always follow up with your healthcare provider before engaging in exercise after a pulmonary embolism. They can help you understand a safe way to incorporate physical activity into your routine and may refer you to a pulmonary rehab program for safe monitoring during your exercise.
After a pulmonary embolism, daily activities can be hard to maintain, and you might find yourself tired. The risk of future incidences of embolism also increases.
Fortunately, life after a pulmonary embolism can be well-managed such that you can enhance the quality of your life and have a good outcome on your recovery journey. With diet changes, a gradual reintroduction of exercise, as well as a medication treatment plan from your doctor, you can set yourself up for a smooth recovery with a positive outlook.
Pulmonary Embolism | Johns Hopkins Medicine
The Basics of Pulmonary Rehabilitation | American Lung Association
Pulmonary Embolism (PE): Symptoms, Signs & Treatment | Cleveland Clinic