Saddle Pulmonary Embolism

“Saddle pulmonary embolism” refers to a severe type of blood clot that lodges itself at a critical juncture in the pulmonary arteries, resembling the shape of a saddle. Understanding this condition, its causes, symptoms, and the importance of imaging in diagnosing it is important for prompt medical intervention.

What is Saddle Pulmonary Embolism?

Saddle pulmonary embolism arises when a blood clot, typically originating in the legs (known as deep vein thrombosis), travels through the bloodstream and gets wedged at the point where the pulmonary arteries meet the main pulmonary trunk. This blockage disrupts normal blood flow to the lungs, posing a severe threat to health and requiring immediate medical attention.

Causes of Saddle Pulmonary Embolism

The primary cause of saddle pulmonary embolism is often blood clots originating in the deep veins of the legs. Factors contributing to the development of these clots include:

  1. Prolonged Immobility: Long periods of inactivity, such as extended bed rest, long flights or car rides, increase the risk of clot formation.
  2. Surgery or Trauma: Post-surgery or after experiencing trauma, the body’s natural blood flow can be disturbed, leading to clot formation.
  3. Certain Medical Conditions: Conditions such as cancer, heart disease, or inherited blood-clotting disorders heighten the risk of blood clots.

Symptoms of Saddle Pulmonary Embolism

Recognizing the symptoms of saddle pulmonary embolism is important for timely medical intervention. Common symptoms include:

  • Sudden Shortness of Breath: Feeling breathless or experiencing difficulty breathing without any apparent cause.
  • Chest Pain: Sharp, stabbing chest pain that worsens with deep breaths or coughing.
  • Rapid Heart Rate: Heart palpitations or an increased heart rate, often accompanied by dizziness or fainting.
  • Coughing: Coughing up blood or experiencing a persistent cough.

Importance of Imaging in Diagnosis

Imaging plays an important role in the accurate and timely diagnosis of saddle pulmonary embolism. Several imaging techniques aid in confirming the presence of a blood clot in the pulmonary arteries:

CT Pulmonary Angiography (CTPA):

CTPA stands as the most used imaging modality for diagnosing pulmonary embolism, including saddle pulmonary embolism. This non-invasive technique utilizes a contrast dye injected into a vein, enhancing the visibility of blood vessels within the lungs. A computed tomography (CT) scanner then captures detailed cross-sectional images, enabling physicians to visualize any blockages or abnormalities in the pulmonary arteries.

The high-resolution images produced by CTPA allow for precise identification of saddle-shaped blood clots that obstruct blood flow. This imaging method not only confirms the presence of a pulmonary embolism but also determines the clot’s location and size, aiding in treatment decisions.

2. Ventilation-Perfusion (V/Q) Scan:

Another imaging approach used to diagnose saddle pulmonary embolism is the V/Q scan. This test involves two parts:

  • Ventilation Scan: Assesses airflow by having the patient inhale a radioactive gas while images are taken to evaluate how well air fills the lungs.
  • Perfusion Scan: Measures blood flow through the lungs by injecting a small amount of radioactive material into a vein and capturing images to observe how blood circulates through the lungs.

Comparison of ventilation and perfusion images helps identify regions where airflow and blood flow don’t match, indicating potential areas affected by blood clots.

3. Doppler Ultrasound:

While Doppler ultrasound is primarily used to detect blood clots in the legs, known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), it also plays a role in diagnosing saddle pulmonary embolism. By utilizing sound waves to create images of blood flow, Doppler ultrasound helps detect clots in the veins of the legs that could potentially travel to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.

This imaging technique aids healthcare providers in assessing the risk of blood clots breaking loose and causing a saddle pulmonary embolism, prompting necessary preventive measures.

4. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI):

In certain cases, MRI may be utilized to diagnose pulmonary embolism, although it’s less commonly used compared to CTPA. MRI produces detailed images using a magnetic field and radio waves, offering an alternative when other imaging methods are not feasible or when avoiding radiation exposure is a concern.

However, due to its limited availability, longer scan times, and less sensitivity in detecting small emboli, MRI is not as frequently employed as CTPA or other imaging techniques for diagnosing saddle pulmonary embolism.


Saddle pulmonary embolism, a severe and potentially life-threatening condition, requires immediate medical attention upon suspicion. Understanding its causes, recognizing its symptoms, and the critical role of imaging techniques like CTPA, V/Q scans, and Doppler ultrasound are crucial in diagnosing and initiating prompt treatment.

If you experience sudden shortness of breath, chest pain, rapid heart rate, or coughing up blood, seek immediate medical help. Early detection and treatment significantly improve the chances of a positive outcome.

Disclaimer: The content of this website is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for, professional medical advice. Do not use the information on this website for diagnosing or treating any medical or health condition. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider.

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