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Understanding Deep Vein Thrombosis

If you’re planning an upcoming getaway that involves sitting in one position for an extended period of time whether by air or car, it’s good to be aware of your risk for DVT or pulmonary embolism. March is DVT Awareness Month and many people are not aware that sitting for extended periods can potentially cause the development of blood clots in the legs (a condition known as deep vein thrombosis or DVT). It’s good to remember that during a long trip in the car or on an airplane, the urge to “stretch your legs” can do more than just ease aching muscles.

World-renowned tennis player Serena Williams recently received emergency treatment for a DVT/PE, more commonly known as a blood clot in the lung. While a DVT occurs when a blood clot forms in a large vein, a PE happens if the blood clot breaks loose, migrates to the lungs and blocks a pulmonary artery or one of its branches.

In 2008, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a “Call to Action” to prevent DVT/PE. According to the U.S. Public Health Service Agency, estimates suggest that at least 350,000, and as many as 600,000 Americans each year contract DVT/PE, and at least 100,000 deaths are thought to be related to these conditions each year.

To understand deep vein thrombosis, some simple definitions may help. The Society for Vascular Surgery provides the following information: arteries bring oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of your body, whereas your veins are the blood vessels that return oxygen-poor blood back to your heart. You have three kinds of veins: superficial veins, perforating veins and deep veins. The deep veins lead to your body’s largest vein, which runs directly to your heart. DVT is a blood clot in one of the deep veins. Typically, DVT occurs in your pelvis, thigh, or calf, but it can also occur less commonly in your arm, chest, or other locations.

Unfortunately, many Americans (74%) have little or no awareness of DVT, according to a national survey sponsored by the American Public Health Association. “All too often, people die of DVT complications without ever knowing they had the condition or that they were at risk,” says Christopher Marrocco, MD, vascular surgeon at Scott & White Healthcare – Round Rock.

Anyone can develop blood clots; however, certain people are more at risk, according to Dr. Marrocco.

The primary risk factors for DVT include:

  • Advanced age
  • Obesity
  • Birth control pills
  • Restricted mobility due to acute medical illness, such as stroke, major surgery or respiratory failure
  • Pregnancy and varicose veins
  • Restricted mobility due to long-distance travel
  • Paralysis
  • Patients undergoing major orthopedic surgery who remain immobile in bed after an operation
  • Hormone replacement therapy

Most blood clots are a consequence of other medical problems, but they can also occur in everyday life.  The following are some common causes of dangerous blood clots to look out for:

  • Diminished blood flow caused by surgery, long drive or airplane flight, or lying in bed/sitting for a long time.
  • Damage to the blood vessels caused by surgery or an injury
  • Cancer or hereditary genes

Dr. Marrocco goes on to say that “symptoms of a large PE come on suddenly and include sharp chest pain, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, even sudden death.  In contrast, a smaller PE may not have symptoms or cause any major problems.”

Treatment of blood clots can generally be performed at home with blood-thinning medications, such as Heparin™ and Coumadin™, and wearing elastic stockings for three to six months. However, the best prevention against developing blood clots includes:

  • Informing your doctor of your risk if you are planning to undergo surgery or if you have an illness
  • Breaking up long, sedentary trips with short walks
  • Knowing your risk factors
  • Exercising
  • Knowing your family history
  • Taking medications, such as low molecular weight Heparin and other anti-thrombotics, which are available for hospitalized patients or Aspirin

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Understanding Deep Vein Thrombosis