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Pulmonary Embolism Differential Diagnoses

  • Author: Daniel R Ouellette, MD, FCCP; Chief Editor: Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP  more...
 
Updated: Jun 22, 2016
 
 

Diagnostic Considerations

The variability of presentation for pulmonary embolism sets the patient and clinician up for potentially missing the diagnosis. Such missed diagnoses occur in approximately 400,000 patients in the United States per year; approximately 100,000 deaths could be prevented with proper diagnosis and treatment.

The diagnostic challenge is that the "classic" presentation of the condition, with abrupt onset of pleuritic chest pain, shortness of breath, and hypoxia, is rarely seen. Studies of patients who died unexpectedly from pulmonary embolism have revealed that the patients complained of nagging symptoms, often for weeks, before dying. Forty percent of these patients had been seen by a physician in the weeks prior to their death.[7]

The differential diagnoses are extensive, and they should be considered carefully with any patient thought to have pulmonary embolism. These patients also should have an alternative diagnosis confirmed, or pulmonary embolism should be excluded, before discontinuing the workup. Additional problems to be considered include the following:

  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Pleuritis
  • Pericarditis
  • Salicylate intoxication
  • Hyperventilation
  • Silicone pulmonary embolism [44]
  • Lung trauma
  • Mediastinitis, acute

Sickle cell disease

Sickle cell disease often creates a diagnostic difficulty with regard to pulmonary embolism. A chest infection is often the presenting symptom. Hypoxemia, dehydration, and fever lead to intravascular sludging within pulmonary (among others) vasculature. This promotes a vicious cycle, further exacerbating local hypoxemia, ultimately leading to local tissue infarction. This process is further worsened by bone marrow infarction, which may cause release of fat emboli that lodge in the pulmonary circulation.[45]

Differential Diagnoses

 
 
Contributor Information and Disclosures
Author

Daniel R Ouellette, MD, FCCP Associate Professor of Medicine, Wayne State University School of Medicine; Chair of the Clinical Competency Committee, Pulmonary and Critical Care Fellowship Program, Senior Staff and Attending Physician, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Henry Ford Health System; Chair, Guideline Oversight Committee, American College of Chest Physicians

Daniel R Ouellette, MD, FCCP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, Society of Critical Care Medicine, American Thoracic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Coauthor(s)

Nader Kamangar, MD, FACP, FCCP, FCCM Professor of Clinical Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine; Chief, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Vice-Chair, Department of Medicine, Olive View-UCLA Medical Center

Nader Kamangar, MD, FACP, FCCP, FCCM is a member of the following medical societies: Academy of Persian Physicians, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, American Association for Bronchology and Interventional Pulmonology, American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Critical Care Medicine, American College of Physicians, American Lung Association, American Medical Association, American Thoracic Society, Association of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Program Directors, Association of Specialty Professors, California Sleep Society, California Thoracic Society, Clerkship Directors in Internal Medicine, Society of Critical Care Medicine, Trudeau Society of Los Angeles, World Association for Bronchology and Interventional Pulmonology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Annie Harrington, MD Fellow in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

Annie Harrington, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Chest Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP Geri and Richard Brawerman Chair in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Professor and Executive Vice Chairman, Department of Medicine, Medical Director, Women's Guild Lung Institute, Cedars Sinai Medical Center, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine

Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Physicians, American Federation for Medical Research, American Thoracic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Acknowledgements

Judith K Amorosa, MD, FACR Clinical Professor and Program Director, Department of Radiology, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; Consulting Staff, Department of Radiology, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital

Judith K Amorosa, MD, FACR is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Radiology, American Roentgen Ray Society, Association of University Radiologists, Radiological Society of North America, and Society of Thoracic Radiology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Michael S Beeson, MD, MBA, FACEP Professor of Emergency Medicine, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine and Pharmacy; Attending Faculty, Akron General Medical Center

Michael S Beeson, MD, MBA, FACEP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, Council of Emergency Medicine Residency Directors, National Association of EMS Physicians, and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Kavita Garg, MD Professor, Department of Radiology, University of Colorado School of Medicine

Kavita Garg, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Radiology, American Roentgen Ray Society, Radiological Society of North America, and Society of Thoracic Radiology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Eugene C Lin, MD Attending Radiologist, Teaching Coordinator for Cardiac Imaging, Radiology Residency Program, Virginia Mason Medical Center; Clinical Assistant Professor of Radiology, University of Washington School of Medicine

Eugene C Lin, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Nuclear Medicine, American College of Radiology, Radiological Society of North America, and Society of Nuclear Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Robert E O'Connor, MD, MPH Professor and Chair, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Virginia Health System

Robert E O'Connor, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, American College of Physician Executives, American Heart Association, American Medical Association, Medical Society of Delaware, National Association of EMS Physicians, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, and Wilderness Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Gary Setnik, MD Chair, Department of Emergency Medicine, Mount Auburn Hospital; Assistant Professor, Division of Emergency Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Gary Setnik, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, National Association of EMS Physicians, and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: SironaHealth Salary Management position; South Middlesex EMS Consortium Salary Management position; ProceduresConsult.com Royalty Other

Eric J Stern, MD Professor of Radiology, Adjunct Professor of Medicine, Adjunct Professor of Medical Education and Biomedical Informatics, Adjunct Professor of Global Health, Vice-Chair, Academic Affairs, University of Washington School of Medicine

Eric J Stern, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Roentgen Ray Society, Association of University Radiologists, European Society of Radiology, Radiological Society of North America, and Society of Thoracic Radiology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Sara F Sutherland, MD, MBA, FACEP Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, University of Virginia Health System; Staff Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, Martha Jefferson Hospital

Sara F Sutherland, MD, MBA, FACEP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

Gregory Tino, MD Director of Pulmonary Outpatient Practices, Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center and Hospital

Gregory Tino, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Physicians, and American Thoracic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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A large pulmonary artery thrombus in a hospitalized patient who died suddenly.
Pulmonary embolism was identified as the cause of death in a patient who developed shortness of breath while hospitalized for hip joint surgery. This is a close-up view.
Lung infarction secondary to pulmonary embolism occurs rarely.
Posteroanterior and lateral chest radiograph findings are normal, which is the usual finding in patients with pulmonary embolism.
High-probability perfusion lung scan shows segmental perfusion defects in the right upper lobe and subsegmental perfusion defects in right lower lobe, left upper lobe, and left lower lobe.
A normal ventilation scan will make the noted defects in the previous image a mismatch and, hence, a high-probability ventilation-perfusion scan.
Anterior views of perfusion and ventilation scans are shown here. A perfusion defect is present in the left lower lobe, but perfusion to this lobe is intact, making this a high-probability scan.
A segmental ventilation perfusion mismatch is evident in a left anterior oblique projection.
A pulmonary angiogram shows the abrupt termination of the ascending branch of the right upper-lobe artery, confirming the diagnosis of pulmonary embolism.
A chest radiograph with normal findings in a 64-year-old woman who presented with worsening breathlessness.
This perfusion scan shows bilateral perfusion defects. The ventilation scan findings were normal; therefore, these are mismatches, and this is a high-probability scan.
This ultrasonogram shows a thrombus in the distal superficial saphenous vein, which is under the artery.
A posteroanterior chest radiograph showing a peripheral wedge-shaped infiltrate caused by pulmonary infarction secondary to pulmonary embolism. Hampton hump is a rare and nonspecific finding. Courtesy of Justin Wong, MD.
Computed tomography angiogram in a 53-year-old man with acute pulmonary embolism. This image shows an intraluminal filling defect that occludes the anterior basal segmental artery of the right lower lobe. Also present is an infarction of the corresponding lung, which is indicated by a triangular, pleura-based consolidation (Hampton hump).
Computed tomography angiography in a young man who experienced acute chest pain and shortness of breath after a transcontinental flight. This image demonstrates a clot in the anterior segmental artery in the left upper lung (LA2) and a clot in the anterior segmental artery in the right upper lung (RA2).
Computed tomography angiogram in a 55-year-old man with possible pulmonary embolism. This image was obtained at the level of the lower lobes and shows perivascular segmental enlarged lymph nodes as well as prominent extraluminal soft tissue interposed between the artery and the bronchus.
Computed tomography venograms in a 65-year-old man with possible pulmonary embolism. This image shows acute deep venous thrombosis with intraluminal filling defects in the bilateral superficial femoral veins.
The pathophysiology of pulmonary embolism. Although pulmonary embolism can arise from anywhere in the body, most commonly it arises from the calf veins. The venous thrombi predominately originate in venous valve pockets (inset) and at other sites of presumed venous stasis. To reach the lungs, thromboemboli travel through the right side of the heart. RA, right atrium; RV, right ventricle; LA, left atrium; LV, left ventricle.
A spiral CT scan shows thrombus in bilateral main pulmonary arteries.
CT scan of the same chest depicted in Image 18. Courtesy of Justin Wong, MD.
Longitudinal ultrasound image of partially recanalized thrombus in the femoral vein at mid thigh.
Sequential images demonstrate treatment of iliofemoral deep venous thrombosis due to May-Thurner (Cockett) syndrome. Far left, view of the entire pelvis demonstrates iliac occlusion. Middle left, after 12 hours of catheter-directed thrombolysis, an obstruction at the left common iliac vein is evident. Middle right, after 24 hours of thrombolysis, a bandlike obstruction is seen; this is the impression made by the overlying right common iliac artery. Far left, after stent placement, image shows wide patency and rapid flow through the previously obstructed region. Note that the patient is in the prone position in all views. (Right and left are reversed.)
Lower-extremity venogram shows outlining of an acute deep venous thrombosis in the popliteal vein with contrast enhancement.
Lower-extremity venogram shows a nonocclusive chronic thrombus. The superficial femoral vein (lateral vein) has the appearance of 2 parallel veins, when in fact, it is 1 lumen containing a chronic linear thrombus. Although the chronic clot is not obstructive after it recanalizes, it effectively causes the venous valves to adhere in an open position, predisposing the patient to reflux in the involved segment.
Pulmonary embolus.
 
 
 
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