Background: The results of recent multicenter studies dealing with pulmonary embolism often reveal remarkable discrepancies in terms of diagnosis, prognosis and treatment, partly due to the heterogeneity of study patients and of evaluation criteria. Our prospective study focused exclusively on patients affected by pulmonary embolism with a hemodynamic pattern of acute cor pulmonale, investigated at a single center. Particular attention was paid to in-hospital mortality, embolic recurrences, major bleeding and underlying pathologies.
Methods: This study includes 160 cases (103 women with a median age of 71 years and 57 men with a median age of 65 years) in whom the clinical and echocardiographic findings suggestive of acute pulmonary embolism were confirmed by lung perfusion scan, pulmonary angiography, techniques for the detection of deep vein thrombosis and/or autopsy.
Results: The most common clinical manifestations were: dyspnea (92% of cases), tachycardia (80%), syncope (44%), cardiac arrest (22%), and shock (20%). Thoracic pain was present in only 27% of patients. None of the patients showed a normal ECG; a right bundle branch block was found in 47% of cases. T-wave inversion in the precordial leads (32%) was not related to the severity and outcome of pulmonary embolism. Present or previous deep vein thrombosis was found in 53 and 26% of cases, respectively. Only in 2 patients pulmonary embolism was secondary to a deep vein thrombosis of the upper limbs. Intravenous heparin alone was used in 36% of cases, whereas 56% were treated with thrombolytic agents + heparin. Major bleeding occurred in 9% of patients treated with heparin alone, and in 16% of those who received heparin + thrombolytic drugs. Death occurred in 17% of the former, and in 27% of the latter patients. The in-hospital mortality rate was related not only to the presence of cardiac arrest and--to a lower degree--of shock, but also to the recurrence of pulmonary embolism and to the underlying heart disease. No relationship was found between mortality and age, intracardiac thrombi or malignancy. Prognosis was quite different depending on clinical presentation, with a death rate ranging from 11% in the absence of systemic hypertension, and 77% in the presence of cardiac arrest.
Conclusions: Even the "massive" pulmonary embolism that is observed in a cardiac department represents a true "spectrum" of pathological conditions, a spectrum that should be taken into account not only in order to evaluate prognosis and treatment in a particular case, but also when meta-analyses are performed.