March 3rd, 2011
08:20 AM ET

What Serena Williams' condition means

Tennis star Serena Williams has a serious health condition called pulmonary embolism that sent her to the hospital several times over the past week, her representative said.

She underwent surgery for a hematoma - when blood abnormally collects outside a blood vessel - resulting from this condition, the spokeswoman said.

Pulmonary embolism essentially refers to one or more blocked arteries in the lungs. This usually happens when a blood clot travels from another part of the body (often the legs) to the lungs, according to the Mayo Clinic. This can happen to people who are otherwise healthy, and can be life threatening. But taking anti-clotting medications quickly can reduce the chance of it being fatal.

Symptoms often include sudden and unexplained shortness of breath, chest pain and a cough. This cough can produce sputum with blood. If you have these symptoms suddenly, seek medical attention immediately.

Pulmonary embolism can also cause these symptoms, says the Mayo Clinic:

*Leg swelling
*Clammy or bluish-colored skin
*Excessive sweating
*Rapid or irregular heartbeat
*Weak pulse
*Lightheadedness or fainting

Medications include anticoagulants and clot dissolvers. The condition may also require surgery to remove the clots with a catheter, or a vein filter.

A 2008 study found that the incidence of pulmonary embolism was about 63 per 100,000 patients in 2001. Because of earlier diagnosis, that there has been a trend of more of this condition seen, but a lower severity of illness and fewer in-hospital deaths resulting from it, the study found.

Your risk of developing blood clots in the legs, which can travel to the lungs, goes up if you are sitting for a very long time, such as on a plane or in a car. Preventive steps include taking a walk once in awhile, exercising while you sit, wearing support stockings, and drinking a lot of fluids.

Read more from the CNN Health Library

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.