#32 – Pulmonary Thromboembolism




  • 300,000-600,000 cases per year in the United States
  • It is estimated that up to 50% will have post-thrombotic syndrome

Why Are We So Scared?

  • As many as 20% of patients with 1st onset PTE have no identifiable risk factors
  • 10-30% 1-month mortality with up to 25% presenting as sudden death
  • Fear of litigation is #1 reason clinicians work-up low risk PTE

Why Can’t We Test Everyone?

  • Up to $16,000 per patient in total health care costs
  • 6 times more deaths with testing and treatment

Signs and Symptoms

The majority of the classic signs and symptoms come from PIOPED II study and EMPEROR registry.  These include:

  • Dyspnea (73%)
  • Chest Pain (64%)
  • Tachypnea (57%)
  • DVT findings or leg pain/swelling (47%)
  • Tachycardia (26%)
  • Dizziness (12%)
  • Hemoptysis (10%)

The EMPEROR registry took it a step further and determined mean vital sign measurements of:

  • Heart rate – 95 bpm
  • Respiratory rate – 20 bpm
  • Oxygen saturation – 95%

A recent trail in the NEJM called PESIT concluded as many as 1 in 6 patients with first time syncope has a PTE on inpatient work-up.  This study has been largely panned by the EM community and you can read their take from the links below:

Pre-Test Probability Scores

The most well know score is the Wells Criteria first published in 1998 and then revised and simplified in 2000 and 2001.


A second calculation is the Geneva Score first published in 2001 and revised and simplified in 2006 and 2008.


The Pulmonary Embolism Rule-Out Criteria was published in 2008 by Jeff Kline and is a second set of criteria to definitively rule-out PTE in patients ALREADY SCORE AS LOW RISK by Wells or Geneva.


What about just good ol’ clinical gestalt?  An interesting study was performed in 2013 looking at the accuracy of Wells vs Geneva vs Gestalt and found:

  • Clinical gestalt had a lower missed rate of PTE in low-risk patients
  • Clinical gestalt had a high accuracy of diagnosing PTE in high-risk patients

The Work-Up of Suspected PTE

  1. Electrocardiogram is not senstitive nor specific for PTE but should be ordered on every patient with chest pain and/or shortness of breath to rule-out ACS
    1. The EMCMD talks about the 10 ECG findings of PTE in the best video I have every scene
  2. D-Dimer
    1. High senstivity = good for rule-out
    2. Should only be used after pre-test probability due to the false positives and unnecessary work-ups
    3. ADJUST-PE Study
      1. Found D-Dimer go up with age and created an age adjusted D-Dimer cutoff of:
        1. Age (yr) x 10 as diagnostic threshold
  3. Radiographic Imaging
    1. Computed tomography is gold standard but has higher radiation exposure and contrast loads
    2. Image result for CT PTE
    3. Ventilation/Perfusion scan is safer in renal patients but up to 2/3rd are non-diagnostic
    4. Image result for V/Q PTE

Risk Assessment

Once you diagnose a patient with a PTE, you have determine the patient’s risk and severity of disease.

  1. Echocardiogram
    1. Looking for RV strain
      1. RV:LV ≥ 1
      2. RV hypokinesis
      3. Paradoxical septal movement
      4. Tricuspid regurgitation
  2. Biomarkers
    1. Brain Natriuretic Peptide (BNP)
      1. > 90 pg/mL has been associated with increased mortality
    2. Troponin
      1. > 0.01 ng/mL suggests evidence of RV dysfunction
  3. Pulmonary Embolism Severity Index (PESI)
    1. Published in 2005 and simplified 2010
    2. Developed to help prognosticate 30d mortality and found low-risk patients (PESI – 0) can be safely treated as outpatient

Definitions/Grades of PTE

Treatment Strategies for PTE

  1. Anticoagulation
    1. Started with confirmation of PTE or with high pre-test probability during workup
    2. Lots of options (heparin, LMWH, direct thrombin inhibitors, Factor Xa inhibitors)
  2. Fibrinolytics
    1. Lots of recent research on who to lyse and who not to
    2. Original research showed benefit if full dose lytics were given to massive PTE, but harm in submassive patients
    3. This led to MOPPET in 2013 evaluating 1/2 dose lytics in submassive patients and found:
      1. Reduction in overall mortality
      2. No difference in bleeding complications
      3. Reduction in hospital stay
    4. PEITHO came next in 2014 and looked at full dose lytics vs anticoagulation only for submassive PTE and found:
      1. No mortality benefit
      2. Reduction in hemodynamic compromise
      3. Increase in major bleeding and intracranial hemorrhage
  3. Catheter Directed Therapy
    1. Good options in patients with a high risk of bleeding with systemic fibrinolytic therapy
    2. This can include:
      1. Focal fibrinolytic therapy at the clot
      2. Mechanical thombectomy
        1. AngioJet system
        2. AngioVac system
      3. Ultrasound Assisted Local Fibrinolytic Therapy
        1. ULTIMA and SEATTLE-II studies found reduction in RV:LV ratio and decreased bleeding complications
  4. Surgical Thrombectomy
    1. Can be used as a last resort option and mortality from these procedures has dramatically improved from 57% in the 1960s to < 6% in 2005

Putting It All Together

This is a graphic I modified from Jeff Kline and EmCrit that encompasses everything into a nice, neat package and as I have said before “algorithms will set you free”



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