Venous Thromboembolism (VTE) Clinical Presentation

Updated: Dec 20, 2021
  • Author: Vera A De Palo, MD, MBA, FCCP; Chief Editor: Vinod K Panchbhavi, MD, FACS, FAOA, FABOS, FAAOS  more...
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With pulmonary embolism (PE), the patient often experiences acute onset of shortness of breath; sometimes the patient even pinpoints the moment of distress. Complaints related to signs of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), lower-extremity swelling, and warmth to touch or tenderness may be present. Dyspnea is the most frequent symptom of PE.

With a smaller PE near the pleura, the patient may complain of pleuritic chest pain, cough, or hemoptysis. Sometimes, massive PE can present with syncope. The patient may have a sense of impending doom, with apprehension and anxiety. History may reveal the presence of one or more causes or risk factors.


Physical Examination

Some patients have signs of DVT, lower-extremity swelling, and tenderness and warmth to touch. Clinical signs of pulmonary thromboembolism also include the following:

  • Tachypnea (respiratory rate exceeding 18 breaths/min) is the most common sign of PE
  • Tachycardia often is present
  • The second heart sound can be accentuated
  • Fever may be present
  • Lung examination findings frequently are normal
  • Cyanosis may be present

In the appropriate clinical setting, when shortness of breath, hypoxemia, and tachycardia are present, there should be a high clinical suspicion of PE until it is ruled out. Timely anticoagulation is important; 5-7% of recurrences are fatal.

The likelihood of PE in a patient in whom it is suspected may be assessed by the Wells clinical decision rule. The criteria are scored as follows:

  • Clinical symptoms of DVT (3 points)
  • Other diagnoses less likely than PE (3 points)
  • Heart rate higher than 100 beats/min (1.5 points)
  • Immobilization for at least 3 days or surgery in previous 4 weeks (1.5 points)
  • Previous DVT/PE (1.5 points)
  • Hemoptysis (1 point)
  • Malignancy (1 point)

In the modified Wells criteria, PE is likely when the score is greater than 4 and unlikely when the score is less than 4. Highly sensitive D-dimer is coupled into the decision algorithm. [19]