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Pulmonary Embolism: If It Can Strike Serena Williams, It Can Ace Anyone

News that tennis star Serena Williams was treated for a blood clot in her lungs is shining the spotlight on a frightfully overlooked condition that can affect anyone — even a trained athlete who stays fit for a living.

Williams had a pulmonary embolism. That’s doctor speak for a blood clot that originally formed in the legs or elsewhere in the body but that eventually broke away, traveled through the bloodstream, and got stuck in a major artery feeding the lungs. (To read more about pulmonary embolism, check out this article from the Harvard Heart Letter.) Pulmonary embolism is serious trouble because it can prevent the lungs from oxygenating blood — about one in 12 people who have one die from it.

“No one is immune from pulmonary embolism, not even super athletes,” says Dr. Samuel Z. Goldhaber, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and one of the country’s leading experts in this clotting disorder.

Pulmonary embolism tends to happen among people who have recently had surgery, been injured, or been confined to bed rest for some time. It can also strike after long-haul flights.

Signs of a PE

How do you know if you’re experiencing a pulmonary embolism? The most common symptoms include shortness of breath when you aren’t exerting yourself, along with chest pain and coughing up blood. If you experience any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately. Other worrisome signs include:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Clammy or bluish skin
  • Light-headedness
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat

The tennis star’s pulmonary embolism could have been the result of the perfect storm. After having a cast removed from a foot she cut at Wimbledon, Williams flew from New York to Los Angeles. It was in LA, after an appearance at the Oscars ceremony on Sunday, that she underwent emergency treatment at Cedars Sinai Hospital for a blood clot in her lungs.

A call to action by the U.S. Surgeon General says that pulmonary embolism and a related condition — deep-vein thrombosis — affect an estimated 350,000 to 600,000 Americans each year. Together, they account for somewhere between 100,000 and 180,000 deaths each year.

To learn more about pulmonary embolism, check out this information from the North American Thrombosis Forum.

- P.J. Skerrett, Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*


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