Blood Clots - DVT
Each year, two million people in the United States develop a blood clot, and 300,000 die from one.
What causes blood clots to form?
Three conditions can contribute to the formation of a blood clot in our body. The most common factor is slowing of our blood flow. When blood slows down, it tends to clot. This is why blood clots are frequently discovered after a person has taken a long car or plane trip. Because we are not moving our legs for long periods, our muscles don’t have the opportunity to pump the blood through the veins in our legs. Since this inability to move is especially pronounced in the smaller seats that are closer together in the back of the plane, the blood clots that develop are frequently called “coach class syndrome” or “traveler’s thrombosis.” The second situation that causes blood clots to form is when the vein wall becomes damaged. The body’s response to this is to form a protective coating over the damaged area of the vein. This coating, called thrombin, can turn into a blood clot that can expand and obstruct the flow through the vein. Blood vessel walls can be damaged when people injure their leg or when they have surgery. This is one of the reasons why a patient may be given a blood thinner before or after surgery. The third factor is variation in the components of our blood that either form clots or dissolve clots in our bodies. If we have too much or too little of one of those components, our ability to form or dissolve clots can run into trouble. Many of these conditions are inherited; others can be the result of medications (high doses of estrogen), pregnancy, or other medical conditions such as cancer.
How do you know that you have a blood clot? And what should you do if you suspect that you do?
Blood clots can form in both deep and superficial veins. When they form in a deep vein, they are called deep venous thrombosis (DVT). When they form in a superficial vein, they are usually referred to as superficial thrombophlebitis. Since superficial veins are closer to the skin, the person frequently notices that a vein becomes hard, tender and red when a superficial thrombophlebitis is present. In many cases, a DVT is also present along with the superficial thrombophlebitis, so a person who notices these findings should have an ultrasound. With a DVT, the blood clot can break off and move up to the lungs, causing shortness of breath, chronic breathing problems and even death. So, it is critical to determine if a person has a DVT or not.
Once a blood clot forms, it can do one of three things:
- Break off and move to the lungs, resulting in a pulmonary embolism
- Turn into scar tissue, remaining inside the vein and obstructing the flow through it. This may result in several problems, including leg swelling, pain, and ulceration of the skin.
- Dissolve and leave the vein in good condition
- Increase your likelihood of recovery by seeking medical attention once the symptoms of a blood clot appear.
Know the symptoms of a blood clot:
- Pain in the leg (most often the calf) that gets worse as you walk
- Swelling in the leg
- Sudden onset of a leg cramp that doesn’t go away
- Sudden onset of shortness of breath or pain in the chest when you take a deep breath in
- A red, tender firm streak on the leg, especially over a varicose vein
If you do develop a blood clot, there is a strong possibility that you will develop another one during your lifetime. So, the best option is to prevent them from occurring in the first place!
Prevent blood clots before they occur:
- Always be aware of what your legs are doing—if you have to sit or stand in one place for long periods of time, flex your ankles repeatedly and try to get up and walk for a minute or two every 30 minutes.
- Wear graduated compression stockings when you are standing or sitting, and especially while traveling.
- If you or your family members have a history of blood clots, ask your doctor about the blood tests that might determine if you have an inherited predisposition toward blood clots. If so, you might benefit by taking an anti-coagulant medication if you do need to travel or have surgery.
If you develop any of the symptoms listed above, be sure to seek medical attention as soon as possible.