If you’ll be packing your bags for a long plane ride or a hospital stay, here’s one more item to check off your list: preventing deep-vein thrombosis (DVT).
Deep-vein thrombosis is the technical term for blood clots that form in deep veins, typically calf and thigh veins. Because the clots are caused by prolonged periods of inactivity, DVT has been nicknamed “economy class syndrome”. Being sandwiched into a too small economy-class seat on an airplane, without proper legroom or opportunity to stretch, can encourage the clots, as can an extended period of bed rest. While DVT is serious, the good news is that it can be prevented and treated by taking some relatively simple steps.
Serious health risk
The deep veins are one of two sets of veins in your legs. Both are susceptible to clots, but those in the more superficial set (the varicose veins), are not life-threatening because it’s not possible for those clots to travel to your lungs as the deep vein clots can. It’s this possible complication that makes DVT so serious. As many as 100,000 people die annually due to DVT, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Of course, not everyone who gets DVT is at risk of death. In fact, many DVT victims—perhaps up to 80 percent—don’t even realize they’ve had a clot, because it breaks up and the body dissolves it on its own, causing no pain or damage. But for the other 20 percent, the clot is a big mass traveling toward the lungs (where it is called a “pulmonary embolism”), and a cause for concern. To determine whether you have DVT, your physician can have an ultrasound or X-rays performed.
The ABCs of DVT
In addition to prolonged airplane flights and long periods of bed rest, other factors such as family history, obesity, previous history of blood clots, smoking and use of certain medications, such as birth control pills, can increase risk. Unlike many other diseases, the risk for DVT is equal in men and women.
This is a critical medical issue, one of the major health care problems in the country. In fact, the Office of the Surgeon General released a call to action to prevent DVT and pulmonary embolism.
First and foremost among preventive treatments is to ask your physician about anticoagulant medication, such as heparin, if you’re going to be admitted to a hospital. The majority of patients undergoing surgery will take some kind of blood thinner before and after the procedure. Which medication, the dosage and how long you stay on a drug will depend on your individual risk factors.
Experts are divided about how to recommend one of the other preventive tools: compression stockings. One school of thought says only prescription stockings work, because they provide a customized amount of pressure based on your physician’s recommendation. Others think over-the-counter (and less expensive) compression stockings do the trick in many cases. In any case, do not use control-top pantyhose because they may constrict blood flow around the waist. Your doctor can help determine what type of compression stocking would be best for you.