Purpose: The flow pattern in the central pulmonary arteries proximal to large pulmonary emboli was studied experimentally. The currents to which thrombolytic agents are exposed when administered via an intrapulmonary catheter were visualized in order to explain the lack of benefit of local versus systemic administration.
Methods: By illumination of suspended microspheres, the flow pattern proximal to an obstructing embolus was visualized in an in vitro pulmonary arterial flow model. In six dogs massive pulmonary embolism was created. A pigtail catheter was positioned in the pulmonary artery immediately proximal to the central edge of the occluding embolus. To allow visualization of the local flow pattern, a small amount of contrast material (4 ml) was injected through the catheter at a high flow rate (25 ml/sec). The course of the radiopaque spot that emerged from the catheter tip within 160 msec was monitored with digital subtraction angiography at a frame rate of 12.5 frames/sec. In two dogs, the study was repeated after embolus fragmentation with the same catheter position.
Results: The flow model study revealed formation of a vortex proximal to the occluding embolus. In vivo experiments showed that the radiopaque spot was whirled by the vortex proximal to the embolus and made only evanescent contact with the edge of the embolus. Regardless of the embolus location, the contrast spot was washed into the non-occluded ipsilateral and contralateral pulmonary arteries within 0.40-0.64 sec. After embolus fragmentation, the contrast spot was carried completely into the formerly occluded artery.
Conclusion: Flow studies explain why thrombolytic agents administered via a catheter positioned adjacent to the embolus may have no more effect than systemically administered agents. An enhanced local effect is precluded by the rapid washout into the non-occluded pulmonary arteries and subsequent systemic dilution. These results support the practice of direct intrathrombic injection of thrombolytics or local thrombolysis as an adjunct to embolus fragmentation.