Written by Rhiannon Anderson and Judith Buckland, MBA, RDCS, FASE

Echo in Pulmonary Embolism…the clot thickens

Echocardiography in the Diagnosis of Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism continues to cause at least 60,000 deaths per year in the United States according to CDC statistics. Ten percent of symptomatic pulmonary emboli are fatal within one hour of symptoms onset. However, diagnosis can often be difficult because the presenting signs and symptoms are nonspecific and often mimic other cardiac and pulmonary diseases. Interventional strategies to remove or dissolve thrombi continue to improve. With these improvements, our ability to understand and diagnose also needs to improve. Echocardiography can aid in the diagnosis of pulmonary embolism and provides important functional information about the right and left ventricle that cannot be ascertained from other tests.

Visualization of Thrombus

The thrombus can form anywhere in the venous system and be visualized anywhere en route to the lungs (IVC, SVC, RA, RV, PA). Remember thrombi visualized proximal to PA are not diagnostic of PE but points to the process. There are also differential diagnosis of thrombi to keep in mind such as tumors or myxomas.

Assessment of RV Size and Function

Healthy Right Ventricle

A normal right ventricle (RV) is accustomed to very low pulmonary resistance. RV pressures are low and compliance is high. Unlike the left ventricle (LV), the right ventricle is not use to a lot of pressure or resistance and does a poor job at acutely responding to sudden increase in afterload. RV is an important barometer to what is happening in the pulmonary arteries and on the left side of the heart.

Right Ventricle in Pulmonary Embolus

In a pulmonary embolus, there is an acute rise in pulmonary resistance. The pulmonary pressures DO NOT go up acutely. It is a common misconception that they do.

The increase in pulmonary vascular resistance results in increased RV afterload and increased RV wall tension. The RV dilates acutely and can become dysfunctional. Reduced cardiac output leads to reduction in LV output and ultimately hypotension. Depending on the size of PE, this can result in right ventricular failure.

Pulmonary embolism → Increasd pulmonary resistance → Increased RV afterload → RV Dilatation/Dysfunction → Decreased RV cardiac output → Decreased LV preload → Decreased LV output → Hypotension

Echo Findings in Pulmonary Embolism

McConnell’s Sign or Acute regional RV Dysfunction

McConnell’s sign is one of the most distinct echocardiographic findings in patients with acute pulmonary embolism. The sudden pressure overload on the RV also causes increased wall stress. As a result, it is left mechanically stunned. The right ventricle has a complex shape: distribution of this stress is not uniform, there is mid right ventricle free wall bulging and localized ischemia of free wall due to increased stress. The apical section of the RV is not exposed to this stress due to its location next to the LV.  RV apex is anatomically tethered with LV apex. The LV is usually hyperkinetic due to tachycardia and this pulls the RV apex along with it for a proxy contraction.

mcconnell diagram echo_mcconnell

Tricuspid Regurgitation

Remember that pulmonary resistance, not pressure, elevates during a pulmonary embolism. Therefore, TR velocities are not particularly high in an acute PE. Velocity between 2.5-3.0 m/s is normal for an acute PE assuming the right heart is not accustomed to high pressures previously.

Echo to Assess Therapy

Echo is an effective way to monitor thrombolytic therapy. Within several hours after thrombolytic therapy or suction embolectomy, echo demonstrates:

  • Reversal of RV size back to normal
  • Reversal of RV dysfunction back to normal
  • Can be quite dramatic

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to receive our blog and case studies directly into your inbox!

Next week we will discuss pulmonary hypertension and the differences between PH and PE in echocardiography.

Special thanks to Dr. Scott Solomon, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School for your awesome Illustrative Case Presentation at the 2012 ASE Scientific Sessions – your presentation really helped explain and demonstrate pulmonary embolism in echocardiography.

Like this article? Tell us on Facebook!

echoechocardiographymcConnell's signpulmonary embolismright ventriclethrombustricuspid regurgitation

Our Services


Natalie Fauss
Dear Cardioserv Staff , I'm so happy to have found your educational material , you do a wonderful job of presenting important aspects of echo imaging . I am a registered adult cardiac sonographer and I truly love what I do .. Iam always looking for ways to learn and grow in the field of Echocardiology . Every heart I see never ceases to amaze me ... Love to explore each one ! Thank you so for a wonderful job ... Natalie
Thank you
Thank you, very good explanation.
pat bergey
very informative
interesting as well as very well illustrated facts and concised to the point
very informative
good site
Dalia Khaled
Perfect one
Very nice explaination
Very nice explaination!!!
Nice article!!
Hisham Benlamin
very informative
Danielle Cuevas
What a GREAT article Judith ! This clarified it all up for me ! Thanks :)
Best Cardiologist
Thankyou for sharing this information
Best Cardiologist in
Thank you for telling about echo in pulmonary embolism
good information...and thank you
tahir sahib
every thing is excellent in the cardio serve-u r friends and teachers

Your email will not be displayed.

Required *

Sign Up


Accreditation Help
Online Echo CMEs
Echo Accreditation Software





Show tags
Need Help? Share