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Pulmonary Embolism (cont.)

Exams and Tests

Diagnosing pulmonary embolism is difficult, because there are many other medical conditions, such as a heart attack or an anxiety attack, that can cause similar symptoms.

Diagnosis depends on an accurate and thorough medical history and ruling out other conditions. Your doctor will need to know about your symptoms and risk factors for pulmonary embolism. This information, combined with a careful physical exam, will point to the initial tests that are best suited to diagnose a deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism.

Tests that are often done if you have shortness of breath or chest pain include:

  • A chest X-ray. Results may rule out an enlarged heart or pneumonia as a cause of your symptoms. If the chest X-ray is normal, you may need further testing.
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG). The electrical activity of the heart is recorded with this test. EKG results will help rule out a possible heart attack.
  • Arterial blood gas analysis. A sudden drop in the blood oxygen level may suggest a pulmonary embolism.

Further testing may include:

  • D-dimer. A D-dimer blood test measures a substance that is released when a blood clot breaks up. D-dimer levels are usually high in people with pulmonary embolism.
  • CT (computed tomography) scan or CT angiogram. These tests might be done to look for a pulmonary embolism or for a blood clot that may cause a pulmonary embolism.
  • Ventilation-perfusion scanning. This test scans for abnormal blood flow through the lungs after a radioactive tracer has been injected and you breathe a radioactive gas.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This test may be used to view clots in the deep veins and lungs.
  • Doppler ultrasound. A Doppler ultrasound test uses reflected sound waves to determine whether a blood clot is present in the large veins of the legs.
  • Echocardiogram (echo). This test detects abnormalities in the size or function of the heart's right ventricle, which may be a sign of pulmonary embolism.
  • Pulmonary angiogram. This invasive test is done only in rare cases to diagnose pulmonary embolism.

After your doctor has determined that you have a pulmonary embolism, other tests can help guide treatment and suggest how well you will recover. These tests may include:

  • A blood test to check the level of the hormone brain natriuretic peptide (BNP). Higher levels of BNP mean your heart is under increased stress.
  • A blood test to look at the level of the protein troponin. Higher levels of troponin can mean there is damage to your heart muscle.
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