Tennis & DVTs & PEs: oh my!
Why do athletes, who are healthy and exercise, develop blood clots? Injuries, surgeries, long flights and tough work outs are all factors that lead to sluggish blood flow, which makes blood more likely to clot. Jerome Kersey, a forward for the Portland Trail Blazers had a Pulmonary Embolism (PE) when a blood clot developed in his leg and traveled into his lungs, later killing him. Miami Heat basketball player Chris Bosh also suffered from a PE after a road trip with his team. He missed an entire season because of his recurring blood clots. Athletes, like everyone else, are at risk for developing a Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) or PE.
But, it’s 2020 let’s discuss how blood clots affect more than just the male athletes. Reasons you might develop a blood clot are: family history (some clotting factors are genetic), age, obesity, smoking, chronic illnesses such as heart or lung disease and cancer or hormone treatments. Also, the hormonal changes that result from taking birth control are a risk factor for DVT or PE. Hormones play a large role in the viscosity of blood and beginning with puberty, women are at a higher risk of developing blood clots than their male counterparts.
Before we get into our story featuring my favorite athlete and her battle with blood clots, let’s cover our terminology. A DVT is a blood clot in a deep vein, which is problematic because these veins lead to the heart and lungs. A DVT can cause pain, swelling, redness and warmth at the site. If the clot breaks off and travels to the lungs (or develops within the lungs) this is called a PE. Common symptoms of a PE include shortness of breath, increased anxiety, sweating, fainting, sharp chest pain, faster heart rate and coughing. A PE will cause dangerously low oxygen levels and can be fatal if not caught quickly. One athlete to experience all of the above is THE Serena Williams.
Serena felt like she was on her “death bed” when she developed a blood clot after a cross-country flight following foot surgery. After two surgeries on her foot combined with traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and New York, her risk of developing a blood clot significantly increased. Immobility, slower circulation because of the surgery and sitting for long periods of time while traveling are all factors that cause sluggish blood flow and can ultimately form a clot. Fortunately, after being rushed to the hospital, her doctor recognized these risk factors and she was diagnosed with a DVT and PE.
Foot surgery, "death bed" experiences, and blood clots are not the end of our story. It continues...
According to the CDC more than 900,000 Americans are affected annually by DVTs and PEs. You are more at risk of developing a DVT if you:
- Have recently had major surgery
- Sit or stand for long periods of time without moving
- Take hormones that lead to an increased amount of estrogen in the body
- Are pregnant
Speaking of pregnancy...
After giving birth to her baby Serena Williams knew something was wrong. She was laying in the hospital bed feeling sick and faint. Remembering her previous PE she immediately told the nurse her symptoms. A scan determined she had developed multiple pulmonary emboli in her lungs and needed surgery to remove them. (There’s a lot more to this story, read Serena’s personal account of it here). After this traumatic event the tennis queen was bedridden for six weeks due to blood clot complications.
Superhero that she is, she climbed the hill of recovery and two months later she was back on the court. Before her daughter turned three, mama brought home a title victory at the ASB Classic. Her first title since winning the Australian Open while two months pregnant.
Despite blood clots, and the fear that has followed her regarding developing more, Serena continues to battle her way to the top of the tennis world with (and against) her older sister Venus. Together the sisters hold 14 double grand slam wins (they remain undefeated as a pair). Serena has also beat her older sister 18 of the 30 times they’ve versed one another. Serena also holds the single most number of grand slam victories in women's tennis with 23 titles, 7 Wimbledon wins and 4 Gold Medals. Life-threatening blood clots didn't stop Serena from attaining the status of a top-tier athlete while also scoring as best mom ever.
What can you do to decrease your risk of developing a DVT? Compression socks increase circulation to reduce the chance of a blood clot forming. So, if you have had a blood clot, DVT, PE, or you are at risk of developing one, you can wear compression socks or compression leggings to help prevent them. Wear them while you travel, at a sedentary job, or during pregnancy to help keep your veins working. Wearing compression during pregnancy will help prevent lower extremity swelling and the infamous pregnancy cankles. If you are active, wear compression socks during and after a workout to enhance performance, speed up recovery time, reduce swelling and prevent injuries like shin splints. Wear compression socks for peace of mind.
Don’t let blood clots stop you from living your life, follow Serena’s lead and own your court.