Thrombolytic treatment of cardiac arrest or periarrest due to suspected pulmonary embolism

I recently saw a case in the department that led to me thinking about the role of thrombolytics in cardiac arrest patients — particularly for the purpose of trying to treat arrest from suspected PE. Thrombolytics in out-of-hospital cardiac arrest patients is something I’ve seen considerable inter-attending variability on in practice, and heard conflicting things about from the things that I’ve read and heard in podcasts. So, naturally when there are no podcasts readily accessible on the matter, I turned to PubMed and came across an excellent review article on the subject from Logan et al., “Evidence-based diagnosis and thrombolytic treatment of cardiac arrest or periarrest due to suspected pulmonary embolism”, published four years ago in AJEM.

As they write in the introduction, “This article discusses clinical features consistent with the presumptive diagnosis of PE, provides an overview of thrombolytic agents, and presents a detailed review of the literature supporting the use of thrombolysis as a treatment option for patients in cardiac arrest or periarrest due to suspected PE.” The authors do an excellent job summarizing the available (as of 2014, at least, or 2012 — this being the latest publication included) evidence and discuss strategies for considering whether to push lyrics in the cardiac arrest patient you think might have a pulmonary embolism. Note that this is a different question from lytics in patients with cardiac arrest due to coronary occlusion — though it is likely that many of those showed up in the reviewed trials of lytics in undifferentiated cardiac arrest, or PEA arrest that wasn’t necessarily thought to be secondary to an MI.

What does it boil down to?

“The above literature review shows that unstable or arresting patients experiencing massive PE will likely benefit from thrombolytic therapy. Studies with a retrospective design generally demonstrated the best outcomes, as was expected, due to the patient population having a known or high risk for PE, and possibly publication bias of positive results. Trials with a prospective design had more variation because these trials generally included a heterogeneous patient population in cardiac arrest and illustrates the potential difficulty of applying this intervention in real-time clinical practice. Analysis of the subgroup population of patients with PE in the prospective trials showed possible improved outcome after thrombolytic therapy, although these studies were not powered to look specifically at this group. This disparity emphasizes the importance of patient selection when evaluating for the efficacy of thrombolytic therapy.”

They said it best, so I won’t try to restate their conclusions — one thing I did find particularly interesting was a clinical decision making rule evaluated  in both a retrospective and a prospective trial which found the following triad to be associated with cardiac arrest secondary to massive PE: witnessed cardiac arrest, age less than 65 to 70 years, and PEA as the initial rhythm. This study found that 50% of the (admittedly fairly small n of 48) patients with this triad had a PE, which improved the diagnostic likelihood of PE when compared with the previously discussed sensitivity of 36% when only assessing for PEA rhythm in unexplained cardiac arrest.

There are robust data supporting the use of lytics in patients with hemodynamic compromise in the setting of diagnosed pulmonary embolism. Do these same data, or the data presented in this review and since support the use of it in all undifferentiated cardiac arrest patients, or in any subset of cardiac arrests? I agree with the authors — the data suggests that if the arrest is due to massive PE, lytics may benefit them and are probably worth trying, especially early on if your suspicion is high. But in the undifferentiated cardiac arrest patient, even one in PEA, I think there are many other things to consider like bedside ultrasound, duration of arrest, initial  rhythm, witnessed/unwitnessed, and cormorbid conditions / premorbid quality of life to consider before using an expensive, non-FDA-approved (for this indication) medication that has significant risks.

My next question that I still don’t have a good answer for yet, is whether someone can and should go to the cath lab after ROSC in the setting of the use of thrombolytics? And does this answer hinge on whether the lytics were given for a high suspicion of pulmonary embolism as the precipitating event? Is there ever a role for lytics in cardiac arrest where your suspicion isn’t high for PE as the etiology, but the patient is “too unstable” to go to catheterization? As I said in the last post, definitely more to come.


Logan JK1, Pantle H2, Huiras P3, Bessman E2, Bright L4. Evidence-based diagnosis and thrombolytic treatment of cardiac arrest or periarrest due to suspected pulmonary embolism. Am J Emerg Med. 2014 Jul;32(7):789-96. PMID: 24856738. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

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