Ask a Black Doctor: Pulmonary Embolism Explained was featured in the January/February 2022 issue of ESSENCE — on newsstands now.
“I didn’t get up and walk around enough,” Jade recalls of a 14-hour flight she took—one that ended with her being diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which are clots in the deep veins of the legs and arms. After struggling to breathe, Jade, then 27, eventually went to the emergency room, where she learned DVT clots had traveled to her lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism (PE). According to the CDC, as many as 900,000 people per year, including celebrities like the late Heavy D, Serena Williams, NeNe Leakes and Marc Lamont Hill, have been afflicted with PE. We asked Rachel Marie Bond, M.D., board-certified preventive cardiologist, to help us better understand the condition.
ESSENCE: How do blood clots like DVT occur?
Rachel Marie Bond, M.D.: You can get a blood clot if you have certain medical conditions that affect how your blood clots or prevent your blood from flowing normally. These include a hereditary clotting disorder, cancer, an underlying heart condition that may affect the proper pumping of your heart and thus affect your circulation, and any type of inflammation—due to an underlying inflammatory disorder, injury and/or infection. It may also happen in women on birth control pills, or in people on any form of hormone therapy, especially if they also smoke cigarettes. Pregnancy also increases pressure in the veins and may make women more vulnerable to developing blood clots. Similarly, being overweight or obese may increase the pressure in the veins and place one at a higher risk of developing blood clots. A blood clot in your legs may also happen if you don’t move for a long period of time, such as after you have surgery or an accident that affects your circulation.
Is the main sign of a PE difficulty breathing?
This is a very common warning sign or symptom that would typically come on suddenly. Other symptoms include chest pain or discomfort that worsens when you take a deep breath or when you cough. Feeling lightheaded or dizzy—possibly even to the point of fainting; having a rapid pulse; experiencing rapid breathing; and in certain circumstances, coughing up blood may also be warning signs.
What are some ways to prevent DVT and PE from happening?
Measures to prevent DVT include avoiding sitting still for long periods. If you’re sitting for a while, do not cross your legs, as that can block blood flow. Ask about your family history, especially in your immediate family. Although rare, sometimes clotting issues can be inherited. If you’re traveling a long distance by car, drink lots of water, and make stops to walk around. If you’re on a plane, stand or walk [at least once every two hours]. Try leg exercises—and consider the use of compression stockings, which improve overall circulation. Do not smoke—especially if you are actively using hormone therapy, such as birth control pills. And lastly, keep a healthy lifestyle through exercise, a well-balanced diet and weight management.
@DrRachelMBond is cochair of the Women and Children Committee of the Association of Black Cardiologists, Inc.