A blood clot in the lung, also called a pulmonary embolism, is a serious medical condition that often requires hospitalization for treatment. A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot that formed elsewhere in the body, usually in the legs or arms, travels through the bloodstream and gets lodged in an artery in the lung. This blocks blood flow to the lung tissue and can damage the lung.
Pulmonary embolisms can vary greatly in severity. Small clots may cause minimal symptoms, while large clots can be life-threatening. In general, the larger the clot, the more likely hospitalization will be required for proper treatment and monitoring.
Some key factors that determine if someone with a pulmonary embolism needs to be hospitalized include:
Size of the clot
Larger clots are more dangerous than smaller ones. Large clots are more likely to cause severe symptoms and complications. They require intensive treatment to break up or dissolve the clot quickly.
Unstable vital signs like low blood pressure, rapid heart rate, low oxygen levels, and shortness of breath are warning signs. These need prompt treatment in a hospital setting.
Risk of recurrence
If the cause of the clot suggests a high risk of having another one, hospitalization allows preventive treatment.
Underlying health issues
Pre-existing pulmonary or heart disease increases complications. Hospital care may be needed to stabilize these conditions.
Some blood thinning medications or pre-existing bleeding risks may complicate treatment. Hospitalization allows regulating medications safely.
Evaluation of complications
Complications like pulmonary hypertension from damaged lung tissue may warrant inpatient testing and care.
When is hospitalization absolutely necessary?
Hospitalization is essential for a pulmonary embolism if any of the following are present:
– Shock – Extremely low blood pressure with organ damage. Requires emergency intensive treatment.
– Severe hypoxemia – Very low oxygen levels in the blood. Supplemental oxygen alone cannot improve levels.
– Right heart strain – Pressure on the right ventricle from the clot. Can lead to heart failure.
– Bleeding complications – From anticoagulant treatment. Needs quick reversal.
– Recurrent embolism – Another clot occurs while on treatment. Indicates unstable condition.
– Thrombolysis candidate – Severe clot requires powerful thrombolytics only given in hospital.
– Underlying heart or lung disease – Added strain of the clot could decompensate fragile respiratory or cardiac status.
– Heparin induction issues – Need to closely monitor appropriate heparin levels to adequately treat clot.
– Pain or anxiety requiring IV medication – Maximizing comfort requires inpatient access to IV medication.
What happens during hospitalization for a pulmonary embolism?
Hospitalization for a pulmonary embolism involves the following:
Ensuring adequate oxygenation and cardiac function are priorities. This may require supplemental oxygen, IV fluids, heart medication, or other supportive treatments.
Blood thinning medication is started to prevent clot extension and recurrence. Heparin or low-molecular weight heparin are first-line treatments.
Pain and anxiety management
Medications are given, usually intravenously initially, to control chest pain and relieve anxiety. Opiates or anxiolytics may be administered.
Testing for complications
Imaging, lab work, and other tests are done to check for right heart strain, pulmonary hypertension, and damage to the lungs or other organs.
Heart rate, blood pressure, oxygenation, medication effects, and overall condition are closely tracked. A drop in blood pressure is an emergency.
Movement increases circulation and prevents new clots. Mobilizing starts very early, even just shifting position in bed.
If anticoagulation alone cannot dissolve the clot, injectable thrombolytics like tPA might rapidly break it up.
If medication fails, surgical embolectomy removes the clot through a catheter or open surgery.
Special stockings are worn to improve blood flow in the legs and prevent new clots. They might stay on for weeks.
Instruction on proper anticoagulation, compression stocking use, activity, diet, and other aspects of care needed after discharge are covered.
How long is the average hospital stay for a pulmonary embolism?
The typical hospital stay for an uncomplicated pulmonary embolism is:
– 3-5 days for a small PE.
– 5-7 days for a moderate PE.
– 7-10 days or longer for a large PE with complications.
However, there is a trend toward earlier discharge on oral anticoagulants for low-risk patients with small PEs and no major complications. In these cases, discharge may occur as early as the same day or after 1-3 days if the patient meets certain criteria:
– Stable vital signs.
– No contraindications to oral anticoagulants.
– No signs of bleeding.
– No severe pain requiring IV medication.
– No oxygen therapy needed.
– No heart strain or preload issues.
– Good home circumstances for compliance and follow-up.
– Low risk of recurrence.
Hospitalization for a pulmonary embolism allows for rapid treatment, close monitoring for complications, and stabilization of this potentially life-threatening condition. While some small, uncomplicated clots may permit discharge on oral medication within a few days, moderate to large clots or those with complications often require 5 or more days in the hospital to adequately treat. Regardless of discharge timing, hospitalization is essential to initially stabilize and reverse the most dangerous effects of a pulmonary embolism. Careful surveillance and management of anticoagulation continue on an outpatient basis after the acute hospitalization phase has resolved.