Pulmonary embolism can be difficult to diagnose, especially in people who have underlying heart or lung disease. For that reason, your doctor will likely order one or more of the following tests.
Your doctor may order a blood test for the clot-dissolving substance D dimer. High levels may suggest an increased likelihood of blood clots, although other factors can also cause high D dimer levels.
Blood tests also can measure the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. A clot in a blood vessel in your lungs may lower the level of oxygen in your blood. 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 test known as duplex ultrasonography (sometimes called duplex scan, or compression ultrasonography) uses 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 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.
Spiral CT scan
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 than 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.