Suffocating Under the Weight of Pulmonary Embolisms

2010-09-20 | |
Last updated: 2010-09-20

The ability of the blood to clot is fundamental in protecting our bodies from blood loss in the event of injury. That considered, in most 21st century lives, few us will take advantage of this self-preservation mechanism very frequently. But, when we do get a cut or scrape, we are quickly reminded of the elegance that exists in the body being able to stop its own blood loss.

Because our bodies are complex, however, such mechanisms do not always work as intended. At one extreme, the inability of the blood to clot results in serious conditions like Hemophilia. At the other extreme, the development of blood clots in the veins in conditions such as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) introduces the risks of these clots traveling through the blood stream and causing sudden blockages in blood flow. Examples of these sudden blockages are the life threatening conditions of Stroke and Pulmonary Embolism.

As its name indicates in Latin, a Pulmonary Embolism (PE) is a blockage of the blood flow in one or more of the arteries going to the lungs. The condition can be very serious and often life threatening because without blood reaching the lungs, the lungs are unable to replenish oxygen in the blood. The result is that the tissues of the body are starved of oxygen causing cells to die. At the same time, the high resistance experienced by the heart in pushing the blood into the lungs can result in shock, heart failure, and death.

As a serious health risk, Pulmonary Embolisms are also a significant cause of sudden and unexpected deaths. Amongst individuals admitted to hospitals, 1% will be suffering from the condition. In the US, approximately 350,000 to 600,000 people suffer a Pulmonary Embolism each year and of these, depending on the source of the statistics, anywhere between 9,000 to 530,000 will die.

Now this sort of extremely wide variation in statistics typically means that medical science does not have a good handle on a condition. In the case of Pulmonary Embolisms, this is certainly the case. When we consider those situations where a cause of death was unknown, studies of autopsies found the cause to be Pulmonary Embolism for 1 in 20 such deaths. Other studies have identified only 7% of those dying from the condition as having received treatment in advance. Clearly, the condition is not being diagnosed in any acceptable level of patients.

That aside, understanding who is at risk for the condition and to what degree is still an ongoing effort by a number of researchers. Numerous lifestyle factors, medical conditions, medications and surgeries all contribute to the risks for blood clots or other material being in the blood vessels when they should not be. As a result, gaining better understanding of these risks and making health care providers aware of these factors is also important to improve the numbers for people who can be diagnosed early enough and successfully treated.

At the same time however, even attempting to treat patients with the condition does not currently lead to considerable success because the treatments used are not as effective as they need be. Research from McMaster University Medical Center estimates that 10% of hospital deaths are the result of Pulmonary Embolisms. As well, the more serious blockages of blood flow to the lungs are fatal 30 to 60% of the time, again depending on the source of the statistics.

Taken together, these very poor statistics indicate a need for medical science to further improve its understanding of the condition and to educate health providers as to the risks.  At the same time, there is a significant need for improvements in treating and preventing the condition. Finally, individuals and active patients need to better understand their risks in order to minimize their chances of being another statistic of this dangerous medical condition.

Future articles will highlight just who is at risk from Pulmonary Embolisms, what new treatments are becoming available and why the cost for the condition need to be better managed.

If you have suffered a Pulmonary Embolism, consider sharing your experiences in the forums.

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