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Curr Probl Diagn Radiol. 1988 Nov-Dec;17(6):197-237.

Pulmonary embolism.

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Division of Diagnostic Imaging, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina.


Pulmonary embolism is a common medical problem whose incidence is likely to increase in our aging population. Although it is life-threatening, effective therapy exists. The treatment is not, however, without significant complications. Thus, accurate diagnosis is important. Unfortunately, the clinical manifestations of pulmonary embolism are nonspecific. Furthermore, in many patients the symptoms of an acute embolism are superimposed on underlying chronic heart or lung disease. Thus, a high index of suspicion is needed to identify pulmonary emboli. Laboratory parameters, including arterial oxygen tensions and electrocardiography, are as nonspecific as the clinical signs. They may be more useful in excluding another process than in diagnosing pulmonary embolism. The first radiologic examination is the chest radiograph, but the clinical symptoms are frequently out of proportion to the findings on the chest films. Classic manifestations of pulmonary embolism on the chest radiograph include a wedge-shaped peripheral opacity and a segmental or lobar diminution in vascularity with prominent central arteries. However, these findings are not commonly seen and, even when present, are not specific. Even less specific findings include cardiomegaly, pulmonary infiltrate, elevation of a hemidiaphragm, and pleural effusion. Many patients with pulmonary embolism may have a normal chest radiograph. The chest radiograph is essential, however, for two purposes. First, it may identify another cause of the patient's symptoms, such as a rib fracture, dissecting aortic aneurysm, or pneumothorax. Second, a chest radiograph is essential to interpretation of the radionuclide V/Q scan. The perfusion scan accurately reflects the perfusion of the lung. However, a perfusion defect may result from a variety of etiologies. Any process such as vascular stenosis or compression by tumor may restrict blood flow. In addition, areas of the lung that are not well ventilated will be poorly perfused. Thus, a ventilation scan and a chest radiograph are essential to optimal interpretation of the perfusion scan. Ventilation/perfusion scans are interpreted as degrees of probability of pulmonary embolism. Emboli are not present in patients with a normal V/Q scan. An embolus is unlikely (10%-15%) among patients with a low-probability V/Q scan. However, small emboli that are nonocclusive may be present, and pulmonary arteriography may be used to further evaluate patients with a high clinical suspicion of pulmonary embolus.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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