Serena Had It…..What Is A Pulmonary Embolism?

by Kathy Sykes on March 10, 2011 · 2 comments


This past week Serena Williams, tennis pro, made headline news for being diagnosed and treated with a pulmonary embolism (P.E.) in her lung. How did such a young and obviously fit athlete end up with a pulmonary embolism?

What is it?

Pulmonary embolism is a condition that occurs when one or more arteries in your lungs become blocked. In most cases, pulmonary embolism is caused by blood clots that travel to your lungs from another part of your body — most commonly, your legs.

Pulmonary embolism can occur in otherwise healthy people. Signs and symptoms can vary from person to person, but commonly include sudden and unexplained shortness of breath, chest pain and a cough that may bring up blood-tinged sputum.

Pulmonary embolism can be life-threatening, but prompt treatment with anti-clotting medications can greatly reduce the risk of death. Taking measures to prevent blood clots in your legs also can help protect you against pulmonary embolism.

What causes it?

Pulmonary embolism occurs when a clump of material, most often a blood clot, gets wedged into an artery in your lungs. These blood clots most commonly originate in the deep veins of your legs, but they can also come from other parts of your body. This condition is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Occasionally, other substances can form blockages within the blood vessels inside your lungs. Examples include:

  • Fat from within the marrow of a broken bone
  • Part of a tumor
  • Air bubbles

It’s rare to experience a solitary pulmonary embolism. In most cases, multiple clots are involved. The lung tissue served by each blocked artery is robbed of fuel and may die. This makes it more difficult for your lungs to provide oxygen to the rest of your body.

What are the risk factors?

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

  • Bed rest. Being confined to bed for an extended period after surgery, a heart attack, leg fracture or any serious illness makes you far more vulnerable to blood clots.
  • Long journeys. Sitting in a cramped position during lengthy plane or car trips slows the current of blood flow, which contributes to the formation of clots in your legs.

Older people are at higher risk of developing clots. Factors include:

  • Valve malfunction. Tiny valves within your veins keep your blood moving in the right direction. These valves tend to degrade with age. When they don’t work properly, blood pools and sometimes forms clots.
  • Dehydration. Older people are at higher risk of dehydration, which may thicken the blood and make clots more likely.
  • Medical problems. Older people are also more likely to have medical problems that expose them to independent risk factors for clots — such as joint replacement surgery, cancer or heart disease.

Family history
You’re at higher risk of experiencing future clots if you or any of your family members have had blood clots or pulmonary embolism in the past. This may be due to inherited disorders of clotting that can be measured in specialty labs.

Surgery is one of the leading causes of problem blood clots, especially joint replacements of the hip and knee. During the preparation of the bones for the artificial joints, tissue debris may enter the bloodstream and help cause a clot. Simply being immobile during any type of surgery can lead to the formation of clots. The risk increases with the length of time you are under general anesthesia.

Medical conditions

  • Heart disease. High blood pressure and cardiovascular disease make clot formation more likely.
  • Pregnancy. The weight of the baby pressing on veins in the pelvis can slow blood return from the legs. Clots are more likely to form when blood slows or pools.
  • Cancer. Certain cancers — especially pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers — can increase levels of substances that help blood clot, and chemotherapy further increases the risk. Women with a history of breast cancer who are taking tamoxifen or raloxifene also are at higher risk of blood clots.


  • Smoking. For reasons that aren’t well understood, tobacco use predisposes some people to blood clot formation, especially when combined with other risk factors.
  • Being overweight. Excess weight increases the risk of blood clots — particularly in women who smoke or have high blood pressure.
  • 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.

***Information taken from the Mayo Clinic*****

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda March 10, 2011 at 12:11 pm

WOW!!!!!!!!!! Very helpful information


DrCarrieNelson March 10, 2011 at 12:30 pm

I couldn’t have said it better myself! Very nice discussion of this common and life-threatening condition. Thank you!


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