Tests and exams

Physical exam

If the physician suspects a pulmonary embolism, they will check your vital signs (blood pressure, pulse, temperature, oxygen level) and examine your lungs and heart with a stethoscope.

If the pulmonary embolism is thought to be caused by a deep vein thrombosis, the health care professional will inspect your legs for swelling, warmth, changes in skin colour (bluish or reddish) or visible veins on the surface of the skin (dilated veins). They will also check for pain during palpation of the calf.

A complete physical examination may also be performed to identify the cause of the pulmonary embolism.

What tests are used to detect a pulmonary embolism?

D-dimer: A blood test used to assess the coagulation of blood. As in the case of a DVT, if the result indicates a normal level of D-dimers and thus a low risk of a pulmonary embolism, the physician will reassure you and no further tests will be recommended.

Lung scan: A nuclear imaging test that compares ventilation (air flow) and perfusion (blood flow) in the lungs. The purpose of the test is to determine if the parts of the lungs that are getting air are also getting enough blood. If this is not the case, a pulmonary embolism may be present. This test is done by inhaling a radioactive tracer and receiving an intravenous injection of a product containing a radioactive tracer that emits little radiation. The test is safe in all circumstances, including pregnancy.

CT angiography (or CT scan or CTA): A test used to view the vessels of the lungs. An iodine-based contrast material is injected into the veins to produce detailed images of the lungs and the rest of the chest. Precautions are taken in patients who are allergic to contrast media (iodine) or who have kidney disease. The test is safe during pregnancy. A person who is allergic to seafood is not necessarily allergic to iodine (this is a misconception).