Heart Attack Symptoms Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism symptoms are very similar to those suffered during a heart attack. This very serious condition, while rare, is a medical emergency. Trained professionals must perform specific tests to determine whether a patient is suffering from a heart attack, an embolus in the lungs or another illness. Certain conditions and behaviors, including pregnancy, can also be precursors that factor into reaching a diagnosis.

Pulmonary Embolism Overview

A pulmonary embolism, or PE, begins with a clot that forms in another part of the body. Sometimes it develops in the deep veins of the legs, pelvis or arms and is known as deep vein thrombosis, or DVT. A clot that forms in veins lying closer to the skin’s surface is a superficial thrombosis. This type of clot, while stationary, is a thrombus. Once it loosens and moves within the bloodstream, it is referred to as an embolus.

Typically, several smaller clots will travel to the lungs to cause pulmonary embolism symptoms. Once there, they reach a stopping point, blocking passageways in certain parts of the lungs. This causes tissue to die quickly. Thrombi can also develop on the right side of the heart.

Sometimes, other types of fragmentations can occur that are unrelated to blood clots. These, too, can cause a PE:

  • air bubbles
  • bone fragments
  • fatty tissue
  • tumor fragments from cancerous tissue.

In addition, pulmonary embolism and pregnancy-related issues might arise. During childbirth, the amniotic fluid can potentially migrate with some force through the pelvic veins. All of these instances are extremely rare and, in the cases of smaller clots, cause much less damage in the lungs.

Pulmonary Embolism Symptoms and Heart Attack

While a stroke or heart attack is the result of unusual clot formation in the arteries, pulmonary embolisms result from blockage in veins. That is the major differentiating factor. However, because these conditions cause tissue death in vital organs, it is sometimes difficult to make a diagnosis based strictly on symptoms.

Pulmonary embolism symptoms vary widely in type and severity. Many mimic those of a heart attack as well. Any of these symptoms may occur suddenly and progress rapidly:

  • anxiety
  • erratic heartbeat
  • increased heart rate
  • lightheadedness
  • loss of consciousness
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating.

Severity of symptoms will depend on an individual’s overall health as well as the amount of lung tissue involved.

Unique Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism

Very few individuals suffer a pulmonary embolism without some symptoms. While some PE symptoms can mimic other serious conditions, others are quite specific to PE. However, these so-called specific symptoms can still be signs of other types of disease:

  • chest pain typically reported as being sharp and stabbing in nature, especially noted when taking a breath (This sensation is medically termed pleuritic chest pain or pleurisy.)
  • coughing that is productive and includes foamy sputum containing blood
  • leg tenderness, along with swelling and redness
  • skin color changes, including cyanosis, or blue-tinged skin.

Note that chest pain is one of the most common symptoms of a heart attack as well. The pain may be dull in nature, and many describe it as a squeezing sensation. Pain from a heart attack and from a pulmonary embolism can radiate outward to the arms, shoulders and jaws.

Pulmonary Embolism Risk Factors

Professionals take certain conditions and lifestyle behaviors into account when diagnosing symptoms of pulmonary embolism. These are just a few of the predetermining factors that can indicate PE:

  • Disease-specific clotting conditions: Some cancers, including those of the lungs and ovaries, present an environment for increased clotting.
  • Lung and heart disease: Those suffering from underlying diseases of the heart and lungs are susceptible to adverse clotting conditions.
  • Obesity: Individuals who are overweight are at greater risk of life-threatening blood clots.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: Those who maintain long periods of inactivity are susceptible to pulmonary embolism events.
  • Stroke: Victims of stroke show a predilection for clotting problems in other parts of the body.
  • Surgical procedures: Surgery and hospitalization are prime contributors to pulmonary embolisms. Prior to some procedures, including those of the joints, surgeons will administer anti-coagulant medications. Most hospitals also incorporate pulsing leg or calf cuffs to reduce the risks of clot formation from immobilization.
  • Vein injury: Vein injury, including injury caused by fractures or severe bruising, can contribute to PE.

If you experience a suspected embolism, it is important to give your treating physician a thorough list of any potential causes. This would include the use of birth control pills or hormone treatment therapies.

It is imperative to seek immediate aid for suspected pulmonary embolism symptoms. If treated quickly, the survival rate is generally excellent. If untreated, however, pulmonary embolism will lead to death.


APSFA.org (2005). What is Pulmonary Embolism? Retrieved November 15, 2007, from the APS Foundation of America Web site: http://www.apsfa.org/pesymptoms.htm.

Kabrhel, Christopher, M.D. (2007). Acute Pulmonary Embolism. Retrieved November 15, 2007, from the interMDnet Corporation Web site: http://www.thedoctorwillseeyounow.com/articles/heart/pe_15/.

Vascularweb.org (2007). Pulmonary Embolism. Retrieved November 15, 2007, from the Society for Vascular Surgery Web site: http://www.vascularweb.org/_CONTRIBUTION_PAGES/Patient_Information/NorthPoint/Pulmonary_Embolism.html.