Deep Vein Thrombosis
DVT: a preventable, treatable but potentially fatal condition
We all need our blood to clot. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t stop bleeding when we get cut. But sometimes the body triggers the blood clotting process unnecessarily or excessively.
Blood clots can also form when the blood’s flow rate is lowered or you’ve had damage to the blood vessel wall, such as through an injury.
With deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot (or thrombus) forms, usually in a vein deep in the leg, and partially or completely blocks that vein. If it’s not diagnosed and treated, the clot can damage the valves in your blood vessels or break free and travel through the bloodstream to a major organ, such as the lungs. A blood clot that hits your lungs—a pulmonary embolism—can be fatal. Even if it’s not, it can block circulation to part of your lungs and kill the tissue, forever impairing your ability to breathe.
Every year, as many as two million Americans get DVT and 300,000 die from its primary complication: pulmonary embolisms. But the good news is DVT is preventable and treatable. So it’s important to know your risk factors and do what you can to prevent clots from forming.
DVT can occur because of immobility due to injury, illness, or even extended travel. Numerous medical conditions can lead to DVT, such as cancer, infections, certain inflammatory diseases, stroke, and heart failure.
The most common triggering event is surgery and hospitalization, which is why doctors try to get patients up and moving as soon as possible and why they often prescribe a blood thinner, such as heparin or warfarin, prior to, during, and/or after surgery.
Some people have a genetic predisposition to excessive blood clotting, but DVT can happen to nearly anyone, especially if they’re over age 40.
Other risk factors include being overweight or on hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills; smoking; having cancer or an infectious disease; or having had congestive heart failure, severe respiratory disease or respiratory failure, or a previous DVT episode. You can take a risk assessment test at www.preventdvt.org, a site that contains a wealth of information.
If you have DVT, part of your leg may be painful (it may feel crampy, like having a charley horse), swollen, tender and warm to the touch, and red or discolored. The surface veins may be bulging. If you have those symptoms, see your doctor. But you may have no symptoms at all; half of all people with DVT don’t, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Being active and exercising regularly is possibly the most important thing you can do to keep the blood flowing and prevent clots from forming. You can also quit smoking, manage your weight, and ask your doctor if alternatives to hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills would be appropriate for you.
If you’re going to have surgery, talk with your doctor about your risk factors. He or she can do a number of things to prevent you getting DVT.
If you plan to travel more than four hours, the Centers for Disease Control recommend that you take some proactive measures to prevent DVT. For example, do leg exercises during the trip (to see a video about these exercises, visit the web site above). Avoid wearing short, tight socks or crossing your legs for long periods. Stretch your legs as much as possible. Drink plenty of water and avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol. You may want to wear compression stockings for a long trip. If you can, walk around every two to three hours. If you can’t walk around, frequently curl your toes or press them down. If you’re at risk for DVT, talk to your doctor before you go; he or she may want to put you on a blood thinner.
Remember: DVT can happen to anyone. Find out your risk factors and talk with your doctor. But scary as it is, DVT is preventable and, if you develop it, treatable. Just don’t ignore the possibility. Learning about it now could save your life one day.
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