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Three Warning Signs of Pulmonary Embolism—and Why They are Missed by Medical Professionals 

pulmonary embolism

The day after delivering her daughter via emergency cesarean section in September, 2017, tennis star Serena Williams became short of breath in the hospital. Since she had suffered a pulmonary embolism previously, Ms. Williams notified a nurse she needed IV heparin and a CT scan with contrast.  The nurse thought she was suffering from confusion due to pain medication.  Ms. Williams saved her own life.

Due to having suffered a pulmonary embolism in 2012, Ms. Williams knew she was at risk for another.  A pulmonary embolism is a blockage, usually a blood clot, which makes its way through the bloodstream to the lungs where it interrupts blood flow, causing damage and sometimes death.

When she suffered a sudden shortness of breath, Ms. Williams immediately suspected a blood clot.  Because she had given birth, she had stopped taking her prescribed anticoagulant medication.  A CT-scan confirmed her own diagnosis and she was immediately placed on an IV blood thinner, which caused her surgical C-section wound to hemorrhage.  Ms. Williams had a filter surgically inserted into a major vein to prevent blood clots in her legs from traveling to her lungs and she survived.

Signs And Risk Factors Of Pulmonary Embolism

For seemingly healthy people, the warning signs of a pulmonary embolism may be easy to miss.  An emergency room physician may make the wrong diagnosis.  The Mayo Clinic estimates pulmonary embolism is fatal for one-third of patients who are not properly diagnosed.

Three common symptoms of pulmonary embolism include:

  1. Shortness of breath that worsens with time
  2. Chest pain that worsens with a deep breath and with exercise, and persists when resting
  3. Cough, which commonly accompanies a pulmonary embolism

Because a pulmonary embolism is caused by a blood clot that usually forms elsewhere in the body, other warning signs of a blood clot include:

  • Pain or swelling in the leg caused by a deep blood clot that may break off and travel to the lungs
  • Leg swelling, a warm throbbing pain in your leg, often in the calf
  • Clammy skin, fever, sweating, dizziness, irregular heartbeat

In addition to a blood clot, tissue, pieces of a tumor or even bone marrow from a broken long bone can travel through the bloodstream to the lungs.  Risk factors for blood clots or an embolism can include:

  • Pregnancy
  • Personal or family history of blood clots
  • Smoking or being overweight
  • Estrogen therapy
  • Being immobile as with bedrest, or during prolonged periods of inactivity, such as plane travel
  • History of heart disease
  • Surgical procedures
  • Cancer and certain cancer medications

Too often the signs and symptoms of a pulmonary embolism are misdiagnosed.  If you, or a loved one, suffer symptoms of a blood clot or embolism, get immediate medical attention and mention your concern about pulmonary embolism.

Back in competitive shape, Ms. Williams is looking forward to pursuing her career in tennis and as a mom—while staying vigilant about her history of bloody clots.

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