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Avoid Deadly Blood Clots

Annually, deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolisms kill more people than breast cancer, AIDS, and traffic crashes combined.


Travelers on long trips, pregnant women, and people on the mend from surgery or injury are among those at risk for a silent threat that lurks in veins deep in their bodies. Blood clots called deep vein thrombosis (DVT) may form there, break free, and block lung arteries—a potential killer.

Together, DVT and clots in lung arteries (called pulmonary embolisms) affect up to 900,000 Americans a year and kill as many as 100,000. Many Americans are unaware of their risk and the signs and symptoms of these conditions. Read on to learn how to identify, treat, and prevent these serious health issues. 

Understanding DVT

DVT typically develops in the lower legs or thighs. Damage to a vein’s lining, slow or sluggish blood flow, or thick or clot-prone blood can lead to DVT.

These dangerous clots can break off and move through the bloodstream. They don’t cause heart attacks or strokes, but they can block arteries in the lungs and cause a pulmonary embolism—a medical emergency that can damage the lungs, harm other vital organs, and cause death. 

Are You At Risk?

DVT can strike almost anyone of any age. They occur more often in people with one of these risk factors:

  • Age 60 or older

  • Previous history of DVT

  • Family history of DVT

  • Long periods of inactivity that slow blood flow (such as a long car or plane ride)

  • Smoking

  • Major surgery, particularly orthopedic or cancer surgery

  • Broken bones, trauma, or other conditions that hurt deep veins

  • Use of oral contraceptives

  • Hormone replacement therapy after menopause

  • Some chronic illnesses, like cancer and heart disease

  • Being overweight or obese

  • Varicose veins

  • Pregnancy (the risk remains heightened for six weeks after delivery)

  • African-American heritage

People with more than one risk factor are even more prone to problems. Talk with your doctor if you have any risk factors. The doctor can suggest lifestyle changes and treatments to help prevent DVT. 

Diagnosis and Treatment

DVT can occur suddenly, causing no symptoms until it’s too late. In fact, only about half the people with DVT have noticeable symptoms. Those who do may experience swelling, pain, and tenderness in the affected leg. In addition, the skin in the area may feel warm, look red or discolored, or both.

See your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms. Your doctor may ask about your medical history, perform a physical exam, and order tests. The most common test is a leg ultrasound. Blood tests can help occasionally, but they don’t provide a definite diagnosis by themselves.

Several therapies can prevent and treat DVT. Blood-thinning medications are the mainstay of treatment. They prevent the clot from growing larger and allow the body’s natural defenses to slowly dissolve the existing clot. Medical compression stockings and leg elevation can help ease pain and swelling when clots develop.

If clots remain a threat and blood thinners aren’t safe for you, doctors may perform minimally invasive procedures to insert tiny filters in the main vein from the leg to the heart. These filters catch clots in the bloodstream and prevent them from reaching the lungs. 

Pulmonary Embolisms

People with pulmonary embolisms may have no symptoms, they may have symptoms of DVT, or they may develop pulmonary embolism–related problems. These include difficulty breathing, chest pain or discomfort (especially when breathing deeply), coughing up blood, light-headedness, or low blood pressure.

Get immediate medical attention if you have these symptoms. This is a medical emergency that requires proper diagnosis and treatment the same day. Doctors treat pulmonary embolisms with the same blood-thinning medications used to treat DVT. In rare cases, they may use clot-busting medications to dissolve them.

In some patients, doctors insert thin catheters into the groin or arm and thread the catheter to the clot. Then they release medication to break up the clot or use special instruments to remove it.

Take Charge of Your Health

There’s a lot you can do to prevent DVT and pulmonary embolism. Anyone who is inactive for extended periods is at risk. That means you should take precautions—even if you’re in good health—whenever you sit for a long time at work, travel for more than four hours, or stay immobile for other reasons.

These simple tips can help prevent clots:

  • Stand up and move around every two to three hours.

  • Stretch and exercise your legs while sitting.

  • Wear clothes that fit loosely.

  • Drink lots of fluids and avoid alcohol during long trips.

Regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking can help you stay healthy—and prevent DVT.




© 2000-2018 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.