The electrocardiogram in acute pulmonary embolism

Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 1975 Jan-Feb;17(4):247-57. doi: 10.1016/s0033-0620(75)80016-8.


Electrocardiograms of 90 patients with arteriographically documented acute submassive or massive pulmonary embolism and no associated cardiac or pulmonary disease were studied. Patients were derived from the Urokinase-Pulmonary Embolism Trial National Cooperative Study. In massive embolism, the electrocardiogram was normal in 6 per cent (3 of 50) of patients. With submassive embolism, 23 per cent of patients (9 of 40) had a normal electrocardiogram. Since one or more of the traditional manifestations of acute cor pulmonale (S1Q3T3, right bundle branch block, P pulmonale, or right axis deviation) occurred in only 26 per cent of patients, one could not rely exclusively upon these electrocardiographic abnormalities for the diagnosis of pulmonary embolism. The most common electrocardiographic abnormalities were nonspecific T wave changes which occurred in 42 per cent of patients and nonspecific abnormalities (elevation or depression) of the RST segment which occurred in 41 per cent of patients. Left axis deviation occurring in 7 per cent of the patients was as frequent as right axis deviation. Low voltage QRS complexes, previously undescribed in pulmonary embolism, occurred in 6 per cent of patients. None of the patients had atrial flutter or atrial fibrillation, which appears to occur more typically in patients with pulmonary embolism who have preexistent cardiac disease. All of the varieties of electrocardiographic abnormalities disappeared in some of the patients by 2 wk. Inversion of the T wave was the most persistent abnormality. Larger defects on the lung scan or pulmonary arteriogram occurred in patients with various abnormalities on the electrocardiogram than in patients with normal electrocardiograms. The pulmonary arterial mean pressure and/or right ventricular end-diastolic pressure was significantly higher in patients with several varieties of abnormal electrocardiograms, although the partial pressure of oxygen in arterial blood, in general, did not differ from that in patients with normal electrocardiograms. These hemodynamic correlations, made for the first time in patients, suggest that acute ventricular dilatation, possibly in combination with hypoxemia, is a causative factor of the electrocardiographic changes in acute massive or submassive pulmonary embolism.

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Angiography
  • Blood Pressure
  • Bundle-Branch Block / etiology
  • Cardiomegaly / etiology
  • Dilatation
  • Electrocardiography*
  • Heart Atria
  • Heart Ventricles
  • Hemodynamics
  • Humans
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Partial Pressure
  • Pulmonary Artery / diagnostic imaging
  • Pulmonary Artery / physiology
  • Pulmonary Embolism / complications
  • Pulmonary Embolism / diagnosis
  • Pulmonary Embolism / physiopathology*
  • Radionuclide Imaging
  • Time Factors


  • Oxygen