March 4th, 2011

Serena Williams’ Pulmonary Embolism. Simple but can be deadly.

Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a condition that occurs when one or more arteries in your lungs become blocked.  In most cases, pulmonary embolism is a complication of a condition called deep vein thrombosis. In deep vein thrombosis, blood clots that form in the deep veins of the legs, break free and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs blocking an artery. The clots block the blood flow to parts of the lung, preventing oxygen from reaching the brain and body. Rarely, an air bubble, part of a tumor, or fat from the marrow inside bone (when a large bone in the body breaks) can travel through the blood to the lungs and cause a PE.

Pulmonary embolism can be life-threatening, but rapid treatment with anti-clotting medications can significantly reduce the risk of death. Estimates suggest that 350,000 to 600,000 Americans have a DVT or PE each year, and that at least 100,000 people die as a result. Most of those who die do so within the first few hours.

The signs and symptoms of PE can vary from one person to another. Common signs and symptoms of pulmonary embolism include the following:

  • Shortness of breath or needing to breathe rapidly; often sudden, occurs whether you’re active or at rest.
  • Sharp, knife-like chest pain while taking a deep breath
  • Coughing or coughing up blood

Other signs and symptoms that can occur with pulmonary embolism include:

  • Wheezing
  • Leg swelling/tenderness
  • Clammy or bluish-colored skin
  • Excessive sweating
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness or fainting

There are a number of factors that increase a person’s risk of developing PE.


  • Smoking.
  • Being overweight.
  • Supplemental estrogen. The estrogen in birth control pills and in hormone replacement therapy can increase clotting factors in your blood, especially if you smoke or are overweight.

Medical conditions

  • Heart disease such as high blood pressure or irregular heart rhythm.
  • Pregnancy or the period of time just after giving birth (postpartum).
  • Cancer such as pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers can increase levels of substances that help blood clot.

Prolonged immobility
Blood clots are more likely to form in your legs during periods of inactivity, such as:

  • Long journeys. Sitting in a cramped position during lengthy plane or bus/car trips slows blood flow, which contributes to the formation of clots in your legs.
  • Bed rest.

Age > 65
Older people are at higher risk of developing clots. Older people are more likely to have medical problems that expose them to  risk factors for clots such as joint replacement surgery, cancer or heart disease.

Family history of clots– inherited disorders of clotting that can be measured in specialty labs..

Surgery –immobility during any type of surgery can lead to the formation of clots.

To help prevent blood clots

Exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, and don’t smoke.

When traveling for long periods of time, get up or take breaks and walk around every couple of hours.  On long trips hydration is also important, so drink plenty of water, and avoid drinking alcohol or caffeine.

Learn about your family medical history.  If you are at increased risk, talk to your doctor.

To learn more about pulmonary embolism, click here.

About the Author

Scherly Leon



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