Pulmonary vascular disease (PVD) is a class of conditions that primarily affect the blood vessels within the lungs, leading to abnormal blood flow and impaired gas exchange.
These disorders can arise from a myriad of causes, such as genetic factors, high blood pressure, and chronic lung diseases.
Understanding PVD is crucial for both early diagnosis and effective treatment, as the disease can lead to life-threatening complications like heart failure if left unaddressed.
This article breaks down different types and treatment options for PVD, and includes helpful practice questions on this topic.
Get instant access to 25+ premium quizzes, mini-courses, and downloadable cheat sheets for FREE.
What is Pulmonary Vascular Disease?
Pulmonary vascular disease (PVD) refers to a group of conditions that affect the blood vessels in the lungs.
In a healthy respiratory system, oxygen-poor blood from the body travels to the lungs, where it picks up oxygen and releases carbon dioxide.
This oxygen-rich blood then returns to the heart, which pumps it out to the rest of the body. In the case of PVD, this process is disrupted due to abnormalities in the pulmonary blood vessels.
Types of Pulmonary Vascular Disease
The primary types of PVD include:
- Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT)
- Pulmonary Embolism (PE)
- Pulmonary Hypertension (PH)
Deep Venous Thrombosis
Deep venous thrombosis (DVT) is a condition in which a blood clot forms in a deep vein, usually in the legs.
While not a direct pulmonary vascular disease, DVT is intrinsically linked to pulmonary embolism, as clots formed in the deep veins can dislodge and travel to the lungs, causing a potentially fatal blockage.
Risk factors for DVT include immobility, recent surgery, certain medications, and genetic predispositions to clotting.
Symptoms may include pain, swelling, and redness in the affected limb. Early diagnosis and treatment with anticoagulants are crucial to prevent complications such as pulmonary embolism.
Pulmonary embolism (PE) occurs when a blood clot, often originating from a deep venous thrombosis in the legs or pelvis, travels through the bloodstream and lodges in the arteries of the lungs.
This blockage can severely impact oxygen and blood flow, leading to acute respiratory distress and even death if not promptly treated.
Symptoms often include sudden shortness of breath, chest pain, and a rapid heart rate.
Diagnosis is usually confirmed through imaging studies like CT scans, and treatment often involves anticoagulants and sometimes surgical intervention to remove the clot.
Pulmonary hypertension (PH) is a chronic condition characterized by elevated blood pressure within the pulmonary arteries that carry blood from the heart to the lungs for oxygenation.
This elevated pressure strains the right ventricle of the heart, potentially leading to heart failure.
Pulmonary hypertension can be idiopathic (of unknown cause), but is often secondary to other conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), left heart disease, or connective tissue disorders.
Symptoms generally include fatigue, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort.
What is a Ventilation–Perfusion (VQ) Scan?
A ventilation–perfusion (VQ) scan is a medical imaging test that evaluates the airflow (ventilation) and blood flow (perfusion) in the lungs.
It is commonly used to diagnose conditions like pulmonary embolism, a blockage in the pulmonary arteries that can interfere with blood flow and oxygenation.
The VQ scan consists of two main components:
- Ventilation Scan: A radioactive gas or aerosol is inhaled by the patient, allowing for the visualization of air movement within the lungs. This part of the test helps assess how well air is distributed throughout the lung tissue.
- Perfusion Scan: A radioactive material is injected into the bloodstream, and images are taken to visualize its distribution through the pulmonary blood vessels. This part of the test evaluates how well blood circulates within the lungs.
Both sets of images are then analyzed together to look for any mismatch between ventilation and perfusion, which could indicate a problem like a pulmonary embolism or other types of lung disease.
For example, an area of the lung that is well-ventilated but poorly perfused may suggest a blockage in the blood vessels, likely due to a clot.
The VQ scan is often performed when other tests like a computed tomography (CT) pulmonary angiogram are contraindicated or inconclusive.
Pulmonary Vascular Disease Practice Questions
1. What is VTE?
It stands for Venous Thromboembolic Disease. It’s a disease category that specifically refers to deep venous thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE).
2. What is deep venous thrombosis?
A thrombus that originates in the deep veins of the lower extremities
3. What is a pulmonary embolism?
It’s a blockage of a pulmonary artery by foreign matter. The obstruction may consist of fat, air, tumor tissue, or a thrombus that usually arises from a peripheral vein (most frequently stemming from a DVT).
4. VTE causes increased morbidity and mortality in which group?
5. Why is early recognition and treatment essential?
Early treatment is essential because one-third of the deaths caused by PE occur within 1 hour of the symptom onset. The mortality rate in the group of patients with PE that goes undiagnosed is 30%. If the venous thrombosis is recognized and managed, the mortality rate is less than 8%.
6. Where is the point of origin of a pulmonary embolism?
It usually occurs from a DVT of the lower extremities or pelvis in 86% of cases.
7. Most of the time, the clinical presentation of PE and DVT is what?
It is mostly nonspecific. A high index of suspicion is important to make a diagnosis in patients at risk.
8. Can you reduce the risk of a VTE?
Yes, prophylactic therapy reduces the risk for VTE in patients at risk, but, unfortunately, prophylactic therapy is underused.
9. Pharmacologic choices for prophylaxis include what?
Low-dose subcutaneous heparin, warfarin, LMWH, and dextran
10. What are the mechanical ways to prevent a VTE?
Early ambulation, wearing elastic stockings, pneumatic calf compression, and electric stimulation of the calf muscles
11. The management of VTE includes what?
Anticoagulation therapy with heparin and warfarin
12. What is IPAH?
It stands for idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension and is a rare disease that mainly affects young adults. In IPAH, damage to the endothelium of the pulmonary artery alters the balance between vasoconstrictors and vasodilators, favoring vasoconstriction. Thrombosis and cellular proliferation are contributors to pulmonary hypertension.
13. The management of IPAH includes what?
It includes anticoagulation and the administration of vasodilators. Lung transplantation is an option for refractory cases.
14. What is the only treatment that improves survival in patients with COPD and pulmonary hypertension?
15. How can you detect a pulmonary embolism?
A pulmonary embolism can be detected by chest x-ray, pulmonary angiography, and radio scanning of the lung fields.
16. IPAH is a rare disease that usually affects what group of people?
17. What are some pharmacologic options for the prophylaxis of venous thromboembolism?
Low-dose subcutaneous heparin, warfarin, low-molecular-weight heparin (enoxaparin), and dextran; these would be considered types of anticoagulation drug therapy
18. What are the five categories of pulmonary hypertension?
(1) Pulmonary artery hypertension (PAH), (2) Pulmonary hypertension due to left heart disease, (3) Pulmonary hypertension due to lung diseases, hypoxia, or both, (4) Chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension, and (5) Pulmonary hypertension with unclear multifactorial mechanism
19. A patient on the mechanical ventilator shows an increased VD/VT ratio. What disorder is most likely responsible?
20. What do hospitalized patients who are immobile need to prevent thromboembolism?
21. What is pulmonary hypertension referred to as in patients with no underlying etiology that can be identified?
Idiopathic Pulmonary Artery Hypertension (IPAH)
22. What is the most appropriate test to confirm the presence of a suspected pulmonary embolism?
23. What is pulmonary hypertension?
It is an increase in the pressure in the pulmonary arteries that could result from a large number of conditions that affect the lung vessels, lung parenchyma, and/or the heart.
24. What is venous thrombosis?
A formation of blood clots caused by prolonged bed rest
25. Where do most clots form?
In the deep veins of the lower legs
26. What is a pulmonary infarction?
A PE that results in the death of the lung tissue
27. What is pulmonale?
A term that refers to the chronic elevation of pulmonary blood pressure and will eventually result in right heart failure
28. How many people develop thromboembolic disease each year in the United States?
200,000 to 300,000 people
29. How does a venous thrombosis form?
Most form in the deep veins of the legs; however, some form in the right heart.
30. Which patient population has the greatest risk of thrombosis?
Older patients, bedridden patients, and those with trauma or heart failure
31. How does a pulmonary embolism affect the heart and lungs as they function together?
When blood vessels are blocked in the lungs, the heart has to work much harder. If oxygenation is affected, the heart does not get the energy it needs, and cardiac output decreases.
32. What are the primary hemodynamic consequences of a pulmonary embolism?
Increased right heart pressure, increased resistance, and poor cardiac output
33. What are the most common symptoms of a pulmonary embolism?
Dyspnea and pleuritic pain
34. What are the most frequent physical findings associated with a pulmonary embolism?
Tachypnea, tachycardia, and crackles heard in the affected lung
35. What are the most common EKG abnormalities associated with a pulmonary embolism?
Tachycardia and ST-segment depression
36. How is a chest radiograph used in diagnosing a pulmonary embolism?
While the x-ray is frequently abnormal, it is not specific enough. It does, however, help to rule out a pneumothorax and other causes.
37. How can you use an ABG to rule out a pulmonary embolism?
An arterial blood gas (ABG) is not helpful in the diagnosis because associated abnormalities such as hypoxemia and hypercarbia are nonspecific. They are done to assess the patient’s pulmonary and acid-base status, and to guide pulmonary management.
38. What is the gold standard for diagnosing DVT?
39. What tests are sensitive and reliable in confirming the diagnosis of a pulmonary embolism?
V/Q scans, spinal CT, and pulmonary angiography
40. Will a chest x-ray and ultrasound show pulmonary embolism in the lungs?
41. A V/Q scan reveals a defect in the right lower lobe without a corresponding decrease in ventilation. What is most likely the diagnosis?
Acute pulmonary embolus
42. What can be used for pharmacologic prophylaxis of a pulmonary embolism?
Low-dose subcutaneous heparin and warfarin
43. What can be used for mechanical prophylaxis of a pulmonary embolism?
Early ambulation, elastic stockings, and pneumatic calf compression devices
44. What is the standard pharmacologic therapy for an existing DVT or PE?
Heparin, which inhibits coagulation
45. A patient presents to the ED with severe dyspnea and chest pain. Their respiratory rate is 24, minute volume is 14 L/min, and their ABG results are as follows: pH = 7.44, PaCO2 = 37, PaO2 = 100. What is most likely the cause of a normal CO2 when the patient has a large increase in minute ventilation?
The most likely cause is a pulmonary embolus.
46. When are vena cava filters indicated?
When a DVT is present and the patient has poor reserves. Filters may also be used with chronically immobilized patients and when anticoagulants are contraindicated.
47. What is the importance of providing oxygen to improve the patient’s saturation with pulmonary hypertension?
Supplemental oxygen results in an increased alveolar partial pressure of oxygen, which causes pulmonary vasodilation and reduces PVR.
48. What drugs are used for the treatment of pulmonary hypertension?
Iloprost and Treprostinil
49. What is the role of alveolar hypoxia in the development of pulmonary hypertension?
Alveolar hypoxia causes pulmonary vasoconstriction, which results in an increased PVR and BP.
50. What factors seen in COPD can contribute to pulmonary hypertension?
Loss of pulmonary vascular bed, increased blood viscosity, and hyperinflation compresses pulmonary vasculature, which results in an increased PVR
FAQs About Pulmonary Vascular Disease
What is the Best Treatment for Pulmonary Vascular Disease?
The best treatment for pulmonary vascular disease (PVD) largely depends on the specific type and severity of the condition.
Common treatment options include:
- Medication: Anticoagulants to prevent blood clotting, vasodilators to widen blood vessels, and diuretics to reduce fluid retention.
- Oxygen Therapy: Supplemental oxygen can help in cases where the disease impairs the lung’s ability to oxygenate the blood efficiently.
- Surgical Interventions: Procedures like balloon pulmonary angioplasty, endarterectomy, or even lung transplantation may be considered in severe or unresponsive cases.
- Lifestyle Modifications: Exercise, dietary changes, and smoking cessation also play a role in managing symptoms and slowing disease progression.
Note: Treatment usually involves a multidisciplinary approach, with involvement from pulmonologists, cardiologists, and other healthcare providers.
What are the Long-Term Effects of Pulmonary Vascular Disease?
The long-term effects of pulmonary vascular disease can be significant and life-altering if not managed properly.
Elevated pressure in the pulmonary vessels can put a strain on the heart, particularly the right ventricle, potentially leading to heart failure.
Reduced blood flow and impaired gas exchange in the lungs can result in chronic respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath and fatigue, affecting the quality of life.
Without appropriate management, PVD can lead to fatal complications such as acute respiratory failure or chronic heart failure.
How Do You Test for Pulmonary Vascular Disease?
Diagnostic approaches for pulmonary vascular disease generally involve a combination of clinical evaluation and imaging tests.
Key diagnostic tests include:
- Echocardiogram: An ultrasound of the heart to evaluate its structure and function, especially the right ventricle.
- Pulmonary Function Tests: To assess lung capacity and function.
- Ventilation-Perfusion (VQ) Scan: Particularly useful for detecting conditions like pulmonary embolism.
- Pulmonary Angiography: Often used to visualize blood flow in the pulmonary arteries and confirm diagnoses like pulmonary embolism or other types of PVD.
- Cardiac Catheterization: Invasive but highly informative, this test measures the pressure within the pulmonary arteries.
- Blood Tests: To check for markers like D-dimer, which can indicate clotting disorders.
Note: Diagnosis usually involves multiple tests to ensure accuracy and to differentiate between various types of PVD.
Is Pulmonary Embolism a Vascular Disease?
Yes, pulmonary embolism (PE) is a type of pulmonary vascular disease. It occurs when a blood clot, often originating from a deep venous thrombosis (DVT) in another part of the body, like the legs, travels through the bloodstream and lodges in the arteries of the lungs.
This blockage interferes with normal blood flow and can lead to acute respiratory distress and other complications.
PE is considered a vascular disease because it involves the blood vessels, specifically the pulmonary arteries, and impairs vascular function within the lungs.
How Does Pulmonary Vascular Disease Affect the Lungs?
Pulmonary vascular disease (PVD) primarily affects the blood vessels in the lungs, leading to abnormal blood flow and impaired gas exchange between the lungs and bloodstream.
Depending on the type and severity of PVD, the effects on the lungs can vary:
- Reduced Blood Flow: In conditions like pulmonary embolism or pulmonary arterial hypertension, reduced blood flow can lead to areas of the lung being inadequately perfused, which hampers the lung’s ability to oxygenate the blood.
- Increased Pressure: Elevated pressure in the pulmonary arteries, as seen in Pulmonary Hypertension, can strain the heart, leading to right-sided heart failure and reduced cardiac output, which further impairs lung function.
- Impaired Gas Exchange: In conditions like pulmonary capillary disorders, the exchange of gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide between the lungs and the bloodstream can be impaired.
- Symptomatic Consequences: Reduced blood flow and impaired gas exchange can lead to symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue, and chest pain, affecting the overall respiratory function and quality of life.
Understanding how PVD affects the lungs is crucial for its effective diagnosis and management.
Pulmonary vascular disease is a complex and often misunderstood category of disorders with potentially fatal outcomes.
Its management necessitates a nuanced understanding of its various subtypes, causes, and physiological impacts.
Early diagnosis and a multidisciplinary treatment approach involving pulmonologists, cardiologists, and other healthcare providers are critical for improving patient outcomes.
Advances in medical imaging, pharmaceuticals, and surgical techniques offer promising avenues for more effective treatments, but early intervention remains the cornerstone for managing this challenging disease.
John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.
- Rrt, Des Terry Jardins MEd, and Burton George Md Facp Fccp Faarc. Clinical Manifestations and Assessment of Respiratory Disease. 8th ed., Mosby, 2019.
- “Pulmonary Vascular Disease: Diagnosis and Endovascular Therapy.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2018.
- Mélot, C. “Pulmonary Vascular Diseases.” PubMed, Apr. 2011.