Clinical presentation of acute pulmonary embolism: survey of 800 cases

PLoS One. 2012;7(2):e30891. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030891. Epub 2012 Feb 27.


Background: Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a common and potentially fatal disease that is still underdiagnosed. The objective of our study was to reappraise the clinical presentation of PE with emphasis on the identification of the symptoms and signs that prompt the patients to seek medical attention.

Methodology/principal findings: We studied 800 patients with PE from two different clinical settings: 440 were recruited in Pisa (Italy) as part of the Prospective Investigative Study of Acute Pulmonary Embolism Diagnosis (PISAPED); 360 were diagnosed with and treated for PE in seven hospitals of central Tuscany, and evaluated at the Atherothrombotic Disorders Unit, Firenze (Italy), shortly after hospital discharge. We interviewed the patients directly using a standardized, self-administered questionnaire originally utilized in the PISAPED. The two samples differed significantly as regards age, proportion of outpatients, prevalence of unprovoked PE, and of active cancer. Sudden onset dyspnea was the most frequent symptom in both samples (81 and 78%), followed by chest pain (56 and 39%), fainting or syncope (26 and 22%), and hemoptysis (7 and 5%). At least one of the above symptoms was reported by 756 (94%) of 800 patients. Isolated symptoms and signs of deep vein thrombosis occurred in 3% of the cases. Only 7 (1%) of 800 patients had no symptoms before PE was diagnosed.

Conclusions/significance: Most patients with PE feature at least one of four symptoms which, in decreasing order of frequency, are sudden onset dyspnea, chest pain, fainting (or syncope), and hemoptysis. The occurrence of such symptoms, if not explained otherwise, should alert the clinicians to consider PE in differential diagnosis, and order the appropriate objective test.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Aged
  • Angiography / methods
  • Chest Pain / diagnosis
  • Dyspnea / diagnosis
  • Echocardiography / methods
  • Electrocardiography / methods
  • Female
  • Hemoptysis / diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Italy
  • Lung / pathology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Pulmonary Embolism / diagnosis*
  • Pulmonary Medicine / methods
  • Radionuclide Imaging / methods
  • Syncope / diagnosis