The diagnosis of pulmonary embolism in pregnant patients is one made difficult by many factors, including a normal elevation in serum d-dimer levels (see below) as well as the additional concern regarding exposure of a developing fetus to the high levels of radiation and contrast associated with CT pulmonary angiography. It is well-known that exogenous estrogen is a risk factor for thromboembolic disease, and while it seems from the data discussed below that pregnancy is not as scarily-high-risk for PE as we might think, we certainly know that pregnancy is a time when homones are running high Add to this the fact that in pregnancy, women are both tachypnic and tachycardic due to normal changes in cardiovascular and respiratory physiology — making a clinical diagnosis that much more difficult.
In these sequentially-published review articles by the PE guru Jeff Kline et al., the authors review the diagnostic dilemma presented by these patients and present the following algorithm:
Note the inclusion of the trimester-stratified quantitative d-dimer for patients without a high pretest probability who are PERC negative — this goes against the conventional wisdom that the d-dimer is a worthless test in pregnant women due to the normal elevation found intrapartum. Similar to the way we have begun “age-adjusting” the threshold value of the quantitative d-dimer in non-pregnant patients, they propose that the threshold be “adjusted according to the trimester of pregnancy, as follows: first trimester, 750 ng/mL; second trimester, 1000 ng/mL; third trimester, 1250 ng/mL (assuming a standard cutoff of 500 ng/mL). If the patient has a non-high-pretest probability, has no high-risk features, is PERC negative, and the bilateral ultrasound is negative, and the D-dimer is below the trimester-adjusted values, PE can be ruled out to a reasonable degree of medical certainty.”
They acknowledge the limitations of this approach, including that it hasn’t been prospectively validated, and they do not present any data showing its performance as they’ve been using it, but in cases like this expert opinion is the best we have (so far). He discussed this approach on an episode of ER Cast, and explains it a little bit more in terms of the integration into clinical practice, as well as the role that gestalt can play in risk stratification.
What I found interesting about this was the idea that the post-partum period is the most risky period of time for women in terms of pulmonary embolism — this echoes what we know about cardiovascular disease in the post-partum period, i.e. when women are autotransfused and their cardiopulmonary physiology is rapidly and massively altered, this presents the highest risk in terms of women with heart failure, valvular abnormalities, or disease entities like peripartum cardiomyopathy. According to the data presented by Kline et al, while the risk increases throughout a pregnancy, 70% of all peripartum PEs occur post partum, and the risk during pregnancy is low (OR 0.4-0.8, depending on trimester) — though, as the authors note, this may not actually reflect that pregnancy is protective against PE but instead suggest that we overtest women for pulmonary embolism during pregnancy, perhaps because of the clinical changes described above. The also cite a large meta-analysis of 23 epidemiologic studies that found PE occuring in only 3 of 10,000 pregnancies.
Another thing that stood out to me while reviewing this article was that for a patient to PERC out of these algorithms, their vital signs must be normal throughout their entire ED stay — normalization of vital signs during an ED visit does not lower the risk of PE, as specifically stated by the authors.