For moms-to-be, there’s no worse fear than a troubled delivery. Complications are thankfully rare, but occasionally do happen. Take the case of tennis star and new mom Serena Williams.
Williams recently revealed that trouble started with her first contractions when her baby’s heart rate plunged and doctors performed an emergency cesarean section. That surgery went well, but soon afterward the new mom began having trouble breathing.
Like millions of Americans, Williams has a history of blood clots – and she quickly recognized her respiratory distress as a possible symptom of pulmonary embolism.
Pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot (or clots) travel to the lungs from other parts of the body, usually the legs or the pelvis. The resulting arterial blockage disrupts blood flow to the lungs, which in turn prevents the lungs from providing enough oxygen to the rest of the body. And it can turn deadly without quick treatment.
Pregnancy heightens the risk of blood clots and pulmonary embolism – not just in those with a history of clots, like Williams, but in all women. During pregnancy and after childbirth, a woman’s risk of a pulmonary embolism increases about fivefold.
That’s because levels of blood-clotting factors – the proteins in the blood that help regulate bleeding – fluctuate in pregnant women. There are other contributing factors, too, including a decrease in mobility during late pregnancy (resulting in slowed blood flow in the legs). The growing womb can also put pressure on nearby blood vessels.
Pulmonary Embolism and Childbirth: What to Look For
One of the toughest things about identifying a possible pulmonary embolism is that its symptoms can be vague – and easily mistaken for symptoms of pregnancy. That’s why it’s important to know your body and to be on the lookout for symptoms that may signal something out of the ordinary.
Here are the most common warning signs of pulmonary embolism:
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Other symptoms include:
- Leg pain and/or swelling (typically in the calf)
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Clammy skin or skin discoloration
- Excessive sweating
Who’s at Risk?
For pregnant women, the risk of blood clots continues after delivery for up to 12 weeks, or until blood-clotting factors and the uterus return to pre-pregnancy states.
A few lifestyle factors and underlying conditions may also drive up the risk of blood clots in pregnant women and new moms. These include:
- High-blood pressure
- Being older than 35
- Having a C-section
- Giving birth to twins or triplets
- Having an inherited blood disorder
- Having heart or lung disease
What You Can Do
Despite the increased risk, pulmonary embolism during and following childbirth is uncommon. Still, it’s important to act fast if you think you may have developed a blood clot.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, alert your doctor immediately. If the symptoms are severe, call 911 or get to an emergency room.
Since immobility increases the risk of blood clots, new moms are encouraged to get up and walk around regularly after childbirth, as soon as they are able and it’s deemed safe.
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