Pulmonary embolism can be difficult to diagnose, especially in people who have underlying heart or lung disease. For that reason, your doctor may order a series of tests to help find the cause of your symptoms. Your doctor may order one or more of the following tests.
Your doctor may order a blood test for the clot-dissolving substance D dimer in your blood. High levels may suggest an increased likelihood of blood clots, although D dimer levels may be elevated by many other factors, including recent surgery. In addition, blood tests may be done to determine whether you have an inherited clotting disorder.
This noninvasive test shows images of your heart and lungs on film. Although X-rays can't diagnose pulmonary embolism and may even appear normal when pulmonary embolism exists, they can rule out conditions that mimic the disease.
A noninvasive "sonar" test known as duplex ultrasonography (sometimes called duplex scan, or compression ultrasonography) uses high-frequency sound waves to check for blood clots in your thigh veins. In this test, your doctor uses a wand-shaped device called a transducer to direct the sound waves to the veins being tested. These waves are then reflected back to the transducer and translated into a moving image by a computer. The absence of the presence of clots reduces the likelihood of DVT. If the upper thigh vessels are clear, the ultrasonography will also scan the veins behind the knee looking for residual clots. If clots are present, treatment likely will be started immediately.
Regular CT scans take X-rays from many different angles and then combine them to form images showing 2-D "slices" of your internal structures. In a spiral (helical) CT scan, the scanner rotates around your body in a spiral — like the stripe on a candy cane — to create 3-D images. This type of CT can detect abnormalities within the arteries in your lungs with much greater precision, and it's also much faster than are conventional CT scans. In some cases, contrast material is given intravenously during the CT scan to outline the pulmonary arteries.
This test provides a clear picture of the blood flow in the arteries of your lungs. It's the most accurate way to diagnose pulmonary embolism, but because it requires a high degree of skill to administer and has potentially serious risks, it's usually performed when other tests fail to provide a definitive diagnosis.
In a pulmonary angiogram, a flexible tube (catheter) is inserted into a large vein — usually in your groin — and threaded through into your heart and on into the pulmonary arteries. A special dye is then injected into the catheter, and X-rays are taken as the dye travels along the arteries in your lungs.
One risk of this procedure is a temporary change in your heart rhythm. In addition, the dye may cause kidney damage in people with decreased kidney function.
MRI scans use radio waves and a powerful magnetic field to produce detailed images of internal structures. Because MRI is expensive, it's usually reserved for pregnant women (to avoid radiation to the fetus) and people whose kidneys may be harmed by dyes used in other tests.
March 18, 2015
- Pulmonary embolism. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/pe. Accessed Feb. 6, 2015.
- Thompson BT, et al. Overview of acute pulmonary embolism in adults. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Feb. 6, 2015.
- Pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis. In: Marx JA, et al. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Mosby Elsevier; 2014. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Feb. 6. 2015.
- Bauer KA, et al. Overview of the causes of venous thrombosis. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Feb. 6, 2015.
- Deep vein thrombosis. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00219. Accessed Feb. 6, 2015.
- Pulmonary embolism. In: Goldman L, et al. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2012. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Feb. 6, 2015.
- What is pulmonary hypertension? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/pah. Accessed Feb. 6, 2015.
- Pulmonary embolism. In: Ferri FF. Ferri's Clinical Advisor 2015: 5 Books in 1. Philadelphia, Pa.: Mosby Elsevier; 2015. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Feb. 6, 2015.
- General nuclear medicine. Radiological Society of North America. http://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?PG=gennuclear. Accessed Feb. 6, 2015.
- Catheter angiography. Radiological Society of North America. http://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?PG=Angiocath. Accessed Feb. 6, 2015.
- Landaw SA, et al. Approach to the diagnosis and therapy of lower extremity deep vein thrombosis. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Feb. 6, 2015.
- Hoeper MM, et al. Chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension. Circulation. 2006;113:2011.
- AskMayoExpert. Pulmonary embolism. Rochester, Minn.: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2014.
- Bauer KA. Drug-induced thrombosis and vascular disease in patients with malignancy. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Feb. 6, 2015.
- Your guide to preventing and treating blood clots. Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research. http://www.ahrq.gov/patients-consumers/prevention/disease/bloodclots.pdf. Accessed Feb. 16, 2015.
You Are ... The Campaign for Mayo Clinic
Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit organization. Make a difference today.