Diagnosis and management of life-threatening pulmonary embolism

Peter S. Marshall, Kusum S. Mathews, Mark D. Siegel

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Pulmonary embolus (PE) is estimated to cause 200 000 to 300 000 deaths annually. Many deaths occur in hemodynamically unstable patients and the estimated mortality for inpatients with hemodynamic instability is between 15% and 25%. The diagnosis of PE in the critically ill is often challenging because the presentation is nonspecific. Computed tomographic pulmonary angiography appears to be the most useful study for diagnosis of PE in the critically ill. For patients with renal insufficiency and contrast allergy, the ventilation perfusion scan provides an alternative. For patients too unstable to travel, echocardiography (especially transesophageal echocardiography) is another option. A positive result on lower extremity Doppler ultrasound can also aid in the decision to treat. The choice of treatment in PE depends on the estimated risk of poor outcome. The presence of hypotension is the most significant predictor of poor outcome and defines those with massive PE. Normotensive patients with evidence of right ventricular (RV) dysfunction, as assessed by echocardiography, comprise the sub-massive category and are at intermediate risk of poor outcomes. Clinically, those with sub-massive PE are difficult to distinguish from those with low-risk PE. Cardiac troponin, brain natriuretic peptide, and computed tomographic pulmonary angiography can raise the suspicion that a patient has sub-massive PE, but the echocardiogram remains the primary means of identifying RV dysfunction. The initial therapy for patients with PE is anticoagulation. Use of vasopressors, inotropes, pulmonary artery (PA) vasodilators and mechanical ventilation can stabilize critically ill patients. The recommended definitive treatment for patients with massive PE is thrombolysis (in addition to anticoagulation). In massive PE, thrombolytics reduce the risk of recurrent PE, cause rapid improvement in hemodynamics, and probably reduce mortality compared with anticoagulation alone. For patients with a contraindication to anticoagulation and thrombolytic therapy, surgical embolectomy and catheter-based therapies are options. Thrombolytic therapy in sub-massive PE results in improved pulmonary perfusion, reduced PA pressures, and a less complicated hospital course. No survival benefit has been documented, however. If one is considering the use of thrombolytic therapy in sub-massive PE, the limited documented benefit must be weighed against the increased risk of life-threatening hemorrhage. The role of surgical embolectomy and catheter-based therapies in this population is unclear. Evidence suggests that sub-massive PE is a heterogeneous group with respect to risk. It is possible that those at highest risk may benefit from thrombolysis, but existing studies do not identify subgroups within the sub-massive category. The role of inferior vena cava (IVC) filters, catheter-based interventions, and surgical embolectomy in life-threatening PE has yet to be completely defined.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)275-294
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Intensive Care Medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • biomarkers
  • critical care
  • diagnosis
  • echocardiography
  • embolectomy
  • inferior vena caval filter
  • intensive care
  • pulmonary embolism
  • right ventricular dysfunction
  • risk stratification
  • therapy
  • thrombolysis


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