Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a potentially fatal blood clot that can form in your leg and travel to your lungs. The result can be a pulmonary embolism, a blockage that prevents needed blood from reaching your lungs. Understanding why DVTs occur and knowing the warning signs are musts.
DVTs strike about 900,000 people each year, and 60,000 to 100,000 people die as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Blood clots in the thigh are very serious and manifest with pain and significant swelling up your thigh all the way to your groin," explains Maja Zaric, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
"This can occur within minutes." Redness and tenderness are other signs, according to the CDC. If you experience these blood clot symptoms, call 911 or get to the closest emergency room, Dr. Zaric says.
DVT: Know Your Risk
Who's likely to develop a DVT? The Mayo Clinic identifies the following eight risk factors:
- Prolonged periods of immobility, such as a lengthy hospital stay or a long flight. Fully one-half of all blood clots occur during or in the months after a long hospital stay, according to the CDC.
- Vein injury.
- Birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy.
- Personal or family history of DVT.
- Advancing age.
"People who have genetic disorders that affect their blood's ability to clot, autoimmune diseases that make the blood sticky so it clots faster or injuries to blood vessels are at greatest risk for DVT," Dr. Zaric says. "All of these will cause stasis, which makes blood more prone to clots." That said, DVT can occur even if you have none of these risks.
The real fear is not the DVT, but the risk of it traveling to your lungs, she adds. According to Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of a pulmonary embolism include:
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest pain.
- Rapid heartbeat.
DVT Treatment Basics
If you go to the hospital with blood clot symptoms, your doctor will run tests to see if your symptoms are caused by a DVT, the CDC explains. If they are, the treatment goals are three-fold: Stop the clot from getting bigger, keep it from traveling to your lungs, and prevent future blood clots and their related complications.
Tools your doctor can use to accomplish these goals include blood-thinning medications and filters that can catch a clot before it reaches your lungs. Powerful clot-busting drugs may be used in potentially life-threatening situations, Dr. Zaric says.
One complication, post-thrombotic syndrome, can cause chronic limb pain and swelling that make walking difficult for people who've had a DVT. The best way to prevent this syndrome is to prevent DVT or treat it effectively should one occur, Dr. Zaric notes.
DVT Prevention Strategies
Preventing DVTs is key, and compression stockings are high on the list of techniques. They can keep blood in your lower legs flowing freely.
"Studies have shown that people from different countries who took long plane flights did not develop clots if they wore compression stockings, but their counterparts who didn't wear these garments were more likely to develop blood clots," Dr. Zaric says.
This phenomenon has been dubbed "economy class syndrome" because it has been linked to cramped conditions in coach cabins during long flights. "Every adult should consider support or compression knee highs during flights that are five hours or longer," she says.
It's also important to move regularly every day. "Any activity that gets your calves pumping is beneficial, such as riding a bike or using a stepper or elliptical machine," Dr. Zaric says. "This type of activity prevents blood from staying in your lower leg." Lifestyle changes — including losing weight if you are overweight and quitting smoking — can also lower your chances of developing DVT.
Discuss your risks for DVT with your doctor and always seek care for blood clot symptoms, Dr. Zaric says.
Is This an Emergency?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Data and Statistics on Venous Thromboembolism"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "What Is Venous Thromboembolism?"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Hospitalization and Blood Clots"
- Maja Zaric, MD, interventional cardiologist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City
- Mayo Clinic: "Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)"
- Mayo Clinic: "Pulmonary Embolism - Symptoms and Causes"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Diagnosis and Treatment of Venous Thromboembolism"