Pulmonary embolism (PE) is treated with medicines, procedures, and other therapies. The main goals of treating PE are to stop the blood clot from getting bigger and keep new clots from forming.
Treatment may include medicines to thin the blood and slow its ability to clot. If your symptoms are life threatening, your doctor may give you medicine to quickly dissolve the clot. Rarely, your doctor may use surgery or another procedure to remove the clot.
Anticoagulants (AN-te-ko-AG-u-lants), or blood thinners, decrease your blood's ability to clot. They're used to stop blood clots from getting larger and prevent clots from forming. Blood thinners don't break up blood clots that have already formed. (The body dissolves most clots with time.)
You can take blood thinners as either a pill, an injection, or through a needle or tube inserted into a vein (called intravenous, or IV, injection). Warfarin is given as a pill. (Coumadin® is a common brand name for warfarin.) Heparin is given as an injection or through an IV tube.
Your doctor may treat you with both heparin and warfarin at the same time. Heparin acts quickly. Warfarin takes 2 to 3 days before it starts to work. Once warfarin starts to work, heparin usually is stopped.
Pregnant women usually are treated with heparin only, because warfarin is dangerous for the pregnancy.
If you have deep vein thrombosis, treatment with blood thinners usually lasts for 3 to 6 months. If you've had blood clots before, you may need a longer period of treatment. If you're being treated for another illness, such as cancer, you may need to take blood thinners as long as PE risk factors are present.
The most common side effect of blood thinners is bleeding. This can happen if the medicine thins your blood too much. This side effect can be life threatening.
Sometimes the bleeding is internal, which is why people treated with blood thinners usually have routine blood tests. These tests, called PT and PTT tests, measure the blood's ability to clot. These tests also help your doctor make sure you're taking the right amount of medicine. Call your doctor right away if you're bruising or bleeding easily.
Thrombin inhibitors are a newer type of blood-thinning medicine. They're used to treat some types of blood clots in people who can't take heparin.
When PE is life threatening, a doctor may use treatments that remove or break up the blood clot. These treatments are given in an emergency room or hospital.
Thrombolytics (THROM-bo-LIT-iks) are medicines that can quickly dissolve a blood clot. They're used to treat large clots that cause severe symptoms. Because thrombolytics can cause sudden bleeding, they're used only in life-threatening situations.
Sometimes a doctor may use a catheter (a flexible tube) to reach the blood clot. The catheter is inserted into a vein in the groin (upper thigh) or arm and threaded to the clot in the lung. The doctor may use the catheter to remove the clot or deliver medicine to dissolve it.
Rarely, surgery may be needed to remove the blood clot.
Other Types of Treatment
If you can't take medicines to thin your blood, or if the medicines don't work, your doctor may suggest a vena cava filter. This device keeps blood clots from traveling to your lungs.
The filter is inserted inside a large vein called the inferior vena cava. (This vein carries blood from the body back to the heart). The filter catches clots before they travel to the lungs. This type of treatment can prevent PE, but it won't stop other blood clots from forming.
Graduated compression stockings can reduce the chronic (ongoing) swelling that a blood clot in the leg may cause.
Graduated compression stockings are worn on the legs from the arch of the foot to just above or below the knee. These stockings are tight at the ankle and become looser as they go up the leg. This causes gentle compression (pressure) up the leg. The pressure keeps blood from pooling and clotting.