Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a serious condition that occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein located deep inside your body. A clot is a clump of blood that has changed from a liquid state to a gelatinous like solid state. Deep vein blood clots typically form in your thigh or lower leg, but they can also develop in other areas of your body. Other names for this condition include thromboembolism, post-thrombotic syndrome, and post-phlebitic syndrome.
DVT occurs most commonly in people who are over 60 years old. Certain conditions that alter how your blood moves through your veins can raise your risk of developing clots. These include:
- having an injury that damages your veins
- being overweight, which puts more pressure on the veins in your legs and pelvis
- having a family history of DVT
- having a catheter placed in a vein
- taking birth control pills or undergoing hormone therapy
- staying seated for a long time while you’re in a car or on a plane, especially if you already have at least one other risk factor
Some diseases and disorders can increase your risk of having blood clots. These include hereditary blood-clotting disorders, especially when you have at least one other risk factor. Cancer and inflammatory bowel disease can also increase the risk of developing a blood clot. Heart failure, a condition that makes it more difficult for your heart to pump blood, is also associated with an increased risk of clots.
Risk Posed by Surgery
DVT is a major risk associated with surgery. This is especially true if it is a surgery in the lower extremities, such as joint replacement surgery. If you are undergoing joint replacement surgery, for instance, your doctor will discuss the risk of DVT associated with the surgery.
Being pregnant increases your risk of having DVT due to a combination of increased hormone levels and a slower flow of blood as your uterus expands and restricts venous return from your lower extremities. This elevated risk continues for about six weeks after giving birth. Being put on bed rest or having a C-section also increases your risk of having DVT .
Symptoms of DVT only occur in about half of the people who have this condition. Common symptoms to watch for include:
- swelling in your foot, ankle, or leg on one side
- cramping pain in your affected leg that usually begins in your calf
- pain in your foot and ankle
- an area of skin that feels warmer than the skin on the surrounding areas
- skin over the affected area turning pale or a reddish or bluish color
People may not find out that they have deep vein thrombosis until they’ve gone through emergency treatment for pulmonary embolism, a life-threatening complication of DVT in which an artery in the lung becomes blocked.
You can develop a pulmonary embolism if a blood clot moves to your lungs and blocks a blood vessel. This can cause serious damage to your lungs and other parts of your body. You should get immediate medical help if you have signs of a pulmonary embolism such as:
- chest pain that gets worse with coughing or inhaling deeply
- rapid breathing
- coughing up blood
- rapid heart rate
DVT treatments focus on keeping the clot from growing. In addition, treatment will attempt to prevent a pulmonary embolism and lower your risk of having more clots.
Your doctor might prescribe medications that thin your blood such as heparin and warfarin, which make it harder for your blood to clot. This keeps existing clots as small as possible while decreasing the chance that you’ll develop more clots.
If blood thinners don’t work or if you have a severe case of DVT, your doctor might use thrombolytic drugs. These are given intravenously, and work by breaking up clots.
Wearing compression stockings can prevent swelling and lower your chance of developing clots. They reach just below your knee or right above it, and are usually worn every day.
You might need to have a filter put inside the large abdominal vein called the vena cava if you aren’t able to take blood thinners. This form of treatment helps prevent pulmonary embolisms by stopping clots from entering your lungs.
You can lower your risk of having DVT by making a few lifestyle changes. These include keeping your blood pressure under control, giving up smoking, and losing weight if you’re overweight. Moving your legs around when you’ve been sitting for a while also helps keep your blood flowing. Walking around after being on bed rest can prevent clots from forming. Make sure you take any blood thinners your doctor prescribes if you’re having surgery, as this can lower your chance of developing clots afterwards.
Your risk of developing DVT during travel is low, but it becomes higher if you’re seated for more than four hours at a time while driving or flying. You can lower risk by moving around every so often — get out of your car and move around at intervals during long drives. Walk in the aisles if you’re flying, taking a train, or riding a bus. Stretch your legs and feet while you’re sitting; this keeps your blood moving steadily in your calves. Don’t wear tight clothes that can restrict blood flow.
Written by: Amanda Delgado
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD