Pulmonary Embolism---Causes and Remedies

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Pulmonary Embolism--Causes and Remedies

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March 2, 2011

By Anna Lee, Contributing Columnist

Serena Williams, 29-year old Grand Slam tennis champion was in the peak of fitness when she was rushed to the hospital on March 2, 2011 for emergency surgery for a pulmonary embolism. A pulmonary embolism? What is a pulmonary embolism? And how could a young woman in seemingly perfect health suddenly develop one?

A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the lungs. Potentially life-threatening, a pulmonary embolism can develop when a piece of material, often a clot of blood, travels from elsewhere in your body through your blood stream and into the arteries and veins of your lungs. 

Many of these blood clots start in the large veins of your legs, where the clot is called a deep vein thrombosis.  The two conditions together are often called venous thromboembolism.

According to a 2004 study led by Dr. Samuel Goldhaber at Brigham and Women's Hospital of Harvard Medical School, some 300,000 adults are diagnosed with pulmonary embolism each year.

As many as 3 to 4 times this number actually have the condition without being diagnosed-- 900,000 to 1.2 million Americans  a year.  In these cases of "silent" pulmonary embolism, you may think that you have pneumonia or a heart condition or just anxiety, when in fact you had a pulmonary embolism.

Deep vein thrombosis can be encouraged to develop whenever you are inactive or sitting in cramped conditions -such as on long airplane trips -for long periods of time. 

Given the connection between extensive trips on airplanes and the worldwide travel schedules of tennis stars, it's not surprisingly that Serena Williams was at higher risk for pulmonary embolism. Especially so, given that she has been inactive for several months as she recovers from surgery on her foot from stepping on broken glass.

Other famous people who have suffered from pulmonary embolism include David Bloom, a former television reporter for NBC News network. David Bloom suffered a pulmonary embolism and died while serving as an "embedded" reporter during the first Gulf War in Iraq in 2003.

During his stint as a reporter with the troops in Iraq, David had to endure many long days riding in the cramped quarters of an army tank, conditions which apparently led to the formation of blood clots in his legs and subsequent pulmonary embolism in his lungs.

Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism

When you have a pulmonary embolism, you may suddenly feel short of breath. You may also believe you are having a heart attack because pain in the chest is a common symptom. However, unlike with a heart attack, pulmonary embolism may cause you to cough up blood.

Treatments for Pulmonary Embolism

1.    Surgery. Many pulmonary embolisms clear up on their own in they are tiny. However, large pulmonary embolisms can require surgical intervention. Treatment involves snaking a thin tube (catheter) through your lungs to reach the clot.

2.    Blood Thinners/Anti-coagulants. Doctors may treat the pulmonary embolism with one or more popular anticoagulants such as Warfarin (generic name is coumadin) or Heparin. With respect to heparin or fondaparinux , the administration of these drugs is very specific.

According to the 2004 study from Harvard Medical School, doctors should inject the blood thinner into your fat, never your muscle and should avoid the area around your belly button. As the study stated: "Proper injection technique requires administration into fat tissue, not muscle, and avoiding the area surrounding the belly button. Patients should "pinch an inch" of fat before injection and avoid rubbing the site with alcohol swabs after the injection".

When it comes to administering Heparin orally, your doctor should follow the recommended protocol closely, and it can vary depending on the severity of your condition.

4.    Exercise will not help. Some people mistakenly believe they can help to move the blood clot through vigorous exercise. This will not help. It may in fact make the problem far worse. Do not try to treat a pulmonary embolism on your own. See a doctor immediately if you think you have one.

Natural Remedies and Lifestyle Changes to Prevent a Pulmonary Embolism

1.    Stay Active. Pulmonary embolism originate elsewhere in your body, usually your legs. That is why it is so important to move your legs at least 45 minutes to an hour a day, without exception. If you are recovering from an accident, you are especially high risk for pulmonary embolisms because you may be bedridden or stationary.

Unless you have been ordered to your bed by a doctor, get up and move your body every day. Don't give the embolism time to form in your legs.

2.    Flex your Feet on Long Airplane Trips. Flex your feet, much like cats do, to move your calves. This will force blood up through  your legs and help prevent pulmonary embolisms. Daily, so yoga poises that stretch your calves, such as downward dog, while raising up and down on your heels.

3.    Can an Aspirin a Day Help? You've heard about the effectiveness of taking a small )81 mg) aspirin a day to prevent heart disease. Well, unfortunately, the Harvard Medical School report indicates that a daily low-dosage of aspirin will not help to prevent pulmonary embolisms caused by deep vein thrombosis.

This opinion is not shared by all researchers, however. A 2000 study published in the medical journal Lancet reported that low-dose aspirin therapy reduced the incidence of pulmonary embolism in patients following hip fractures by 43%.  Deep vein thrombosis was reduced by 29%.

4.    Wear Support Stockings. Called gradual compression stockings, support hosiery is a low-cost and effective way to prevent pulmonary embolisms.

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