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Blood clots are often associated with travelers but the threat is not limited to people who take long flights in cramped airline seats. Blood clots have sidelined professional athletes and, as was recently reported, caused the fatal heart attack of comedian Garry Shandling.
Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) is when a blood clot forms in one of the large veins, usually in the leg. If left untreated, the clot can break off and travel to the lungs becoming a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. Dangerous blood clots form in nearly 1 million Americans a year. Ten to 30 percent of those who develop a pulmonary embolism will die within one month of diagnosis.
The good news is that knowing the risks and preventive measures can greatly reduce your chances of getting DVT. Alfonso Tafur, MD, Vascular Medicine at NorthShore, explains what you can do to prevent blood clots.
How does a patient know their risk for DVT?
Frequent travelers are at higher risk but immobility in general can increase your chances of developing a clot. So what is immobility? It’s when your calf muscle is not flexing or pumping for several hours, which makes blood flow sluggish through the vein. Long airplane rides, extended bed rest, long car rides, surgery longer than 45 minutes or having a cast on your leg are examples of immobility.
Most people think DVT strikes just the elderly, but pregnant women, women taking birth control pills and people with a family history of blood clots are also at risk.
What are some warning signs?
Swelling, redness, excessive warmth and pain in the affected area may signal DVT. Check for swelling by comparing both legs to see if one looks bigger than the other. Do the same with your ankle or foot. If you experience cramping or it feels warm to the touch, DVT could be the cause. Once a clot has traveled to the lung, sudden shortness of breath or chest pain may signal a blockage in a lung.
What preventive measures can be done?
The most important thing you can do to reduce your chances of getting a clot is to understand your risk and adapt preventive measures. If you are stuck at your desk or on an airplane and can't get up, simply pumping your leg/foot or rotating your ankle can help to get the blood moving. Staying hydrated is also essential. People who travel a lot should purchase good compression stockings. For patients at very high risk we sometimes suggest preventive blood thinners during the at-risk period. Trauma, surgery and hospitalizations are often the triggers for us to prescribe preventive blood thinners.