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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

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Serena Williams' Pulmonary Embolism, Hematoma: FAQ

Tennis Star Recovering From Life-Threatening Blood Clot

What is a pulmonary embolism?

A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that blocks a major artery feeding the lungs.

These clots usually arise in the leg, usually in a deep vein. Doctors call such a clot a thrombosis. A clot arising in a deep leg vein is called a deep venous thrombosis or DVT. DVTs often arise after a period of inactivity and are particularly common after long airplane flights. A clot originating in a deep leg vein in some cases will break free and travel to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.

Williams may have been relatively inactive because of the foot injury. The risk of DVT is increased with inactivity.

"Her injury could have led to a clot in the leg," Shafazand suggests. "And New York to California is quite a long trip -- and that could increase risk of the slowing down of blood flow in the leg, which could lead to a DVT."

Some people with very small pulmonary embolisms never notice them. But larger clots block blood flow to significant portions of the lungs.

"A large pulmonary embolism cuts blood circulation to the lungs and decreases oxygen levels in the body. A patient can very quickly deteriorate and die," Shafazand says. "And the heart, which is supposed to pump the blood through the arteries, can fail because it cannot stand the pressure buildup from the blockage."

What are the symptoms of pulmonary embolism?

The most common symptoms are:

  • Sudden shortness of breath
  • Sharp chest pain that is worse when you cough or take a deep breath
  • A cough that brings up pink, foamy mucus

Pulmonary embolism can also cause more general symptoms, such as feeling anxious or unwell, heavy sweating, feeling lightheaded or faint, or having a rapid heartbeat or palpitations. Such symptoms, particularly if sudden and severe, require immediate medical attention.

What is the treatment for pulmonary embolism?

Treatment for pulmonary embolism depends on the size of the clot blocking the lung artery and on the degree of blockage.

"When someone comes into the hospital with a suspected pulmonary embolism, we give oxygen. Then we start with blood thinner, heparin, to thin the blood enough to allow it to pass through the blockage," Shafazand says. "Then we do some testing, a CT angiogram, to look for the pulmonary embolism. We may also look at the veins in the leg through Doppler ultrasound."

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