Chest pain after a pulmonary embolism is common and may last days or even weeks. In most cases, symptoms improve as the clot dissolves, but some people can develop chronic pain.

This pain typically feels sharp and may be worse when breathing in rather than breathing out.

It may be difficult to distinguish this pain from another pulmonary embolism or a heart attack. Therefore, it is important to seek prompt care if symptoms suddenly worsen or if new symptoms develop.

Read on to learn about chest pain after pulmonary embolism, including how common it is, how it feels, how long it lasts, and recovery.

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According to the North American Thrombosis Forum, chest pain is common after a pulmonary embolism.

However, blood clots do not dissolve immediately with treatment. The pain may persist until the blood clot disappears. A person may notice the pain steadily improving over time.

In the days immediately following a pulmonary embolism, the pain may feel identical to the embolism itself. This is because the blood clot that caused the pain is still there but will break up as treatment takes effect.

People often experience pain that feels sharp and worsens when taking a deep breath. It may also feel worse during exercise.

Anecdotally, some also report that the pain feels moderate to severe. Some feel it in the center of the chest or to one side of the chest, depending on where the clot is.

A person may also experience other recovery symptoms, such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • temporarily feeling unable to take full, deep breaths
  • bruising more easily while taking blood thinning medication

Chest pain after a pulmonary embolism may last a few days or sometimes up to a few weeks.

The National Blood Clot Alliance reports mild pain or pressure can last months or even years after a pulmonary embolism. However, a person should not experience severe long-term pain.

Rarely, some people develop post-pulmonary embolism syndrome, which causes symptoms lasting longer than 3 months. The main symptoms include:

The length of time it takes to dissolve the blood clot is a key factor in pulmonary embolism recovery. Most people have no symptoms, including pain or shortness of breath, within 3 months of treatment.

However, some factors that may slow recovery include:

  • developing another pulmonary embolism
  • overall low health
  • a lack of physical activity
  • chronic underlying cardiovascular disease

If a person has other conditions or a disability that could affect their recovery, they may be able to get support or treatment for this from a doctor. For help getting physically active, some people may benefit from physical therapy, rehabilitation, or mobility aids.

Chest pain after a pulmonary embolism may feel similar to other serious conditions, such as another embolism or a heart attack.

A person needs to call 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department if any of the following symptoms develop:

  • squeezing, pain, or pressure in the chest
  • sudden, sharp pain in the chest
  • pain in the arms, neck, jaw, abdomen, or back
  • a cough with bloody mucus
  • dizziness
  • new leg swelling or pain
  • nausea or vomiting
  • loss of consciousness

Most people with a pulmonary embolism do not have another one, but a prior pulmonary embolism is a risk factor for having another. It may feel different the second time, too, so it is important to know all the potential signs.

If a person experiences any of the following after a pulmonary embolism, they should speak with a doctor:

  • vision changes
  • heartbeat sounding louder or feeling much faster than usual
  • persistent difficulty exercising
  • feeling chronically unwell or tired
  • symptoms that last longer than 3 months

Having a pulmonary embolism can also affect mental health. People may feel anxious about having another or develop mood changes due to their experiences. In a 2021 study of 72 individuals, around half reported ongoing distress after their embolism.

A person can speak with a doctor or therapist if they experience persistent changes in their mood, appetite, sleep, or energy levels.

The main treatment for a pulmonary embolism is anticoagulant therapy. This means taking medication that thins the blood, which dissolves the clot.

This treatment should cause any chest pain to gradually get better. During recovery, a person should listen to their body and not push themselves to do anything that hurts.

However, it is also important to start becoming more active when symptoms allow and when a doctor says this is okay. Some types of exercise are safer than others when a person is taking blood thinning medication, so it is best to avoid:

  • contact sports
  • climbing
  • horseback riding
  • activities with a high risk of falling or injury

If a person has surgery or consults the dentist, they should tell their doctor they are taking blood thinners.

After 3–6 months, a person may be able to stop taking blood-thinning drugs but should not do so without consulting a doctor.

For mental health, it may help to join a support group, reach out to family and friends, or to speak with a mental health professional who can help with processing what has happened and coping with any ongoing symptoms.

An older 2014 review suggests people who perform their usual activities are no more likely to have a pulmonary embolism than those who do not. Unless a doctor says otherwise, a person does not need to be on complete bedrest while they recover.

Getting physically active can also reduce the risk of another embolism. A 2020 pilot study suggests that people may be able to return to low to moderate intensity exercise about 4 weeks after an embolism.

However, every case is different, so a person can consult their doctor for guidance.

Chest pain after a pulmonary embolism is common. It may feel like a sharp or stabbing pain that gradually gets better as blood thinning medication takes effect. Some people experience ongoing pain due to post-pulmonary embolism syndrome, but this is rare.

Many people find that their chest pain improves within days or sometimes weeks. However, if a person develops sudden or intense pain, along with any other new symptoms, they should seek prompt medical care.

If someone has questions about their recovery, they should consult a doctor since each recovery is different.