Pulmonary embolisms — like the one affecting tennis star Serena Williams — are blood clots in the arteries of the lungs — and they often originate in the legs, traveling up to the lungs.
Experts say they're more common in those who've been confined to bed rest for some time, but can also occur when people travel long distances and sit in a cramped position. This kind of inactivity often leads to blood clots in the legs, or deep-vein thrombosis. Surgery, particularly knee and hip replacement surgery, can also lead to blood clots.
When the blood clots break free and travel to the lungs —blocking a lung artery — the danger grows. At least 100,000 cases of pulmonary embolism occur in the United States each year. And it's the third most-common cause of death in hospitalized patients, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. If left untreated, about one third of patients will die.
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