DVT can happen to anyone, even the young and physically fit. March is deep-vein thrombosis awareness month (DVT).
DVT occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein, often in the legs. DVT is especially dangerous since a complication known as pulmonary embolism (PE) may occur. PE, which is fatal in 30% of cases, develops when part of a blood clot breaks loose and travels to the lungs. Each year, around 400,000 Americans develop DVT, and half of those will also have PE (source: CDC).
To give you some better insights into protecting yourself from DVT, I sent along some questions to Dr. John Kaufman, Chief of Vascular & Interventional Radiology at Oregon Health & Science University Hospital. He co-authored Vascular and Interventional Radiology: The Requisites, used in medical schools across the country. Dr. Kaufman also frequently travels to educate audiences on DVT and PE’s debilitating effects and the current treatment landscape.
Many of us think that a condition like DVT won’t happen to us. Could you explain who’s at the biggest risk of developing DVT?
Dr. Kaufman: DVT is more common with increasing age, in patients with inherited blood clotting disorders such a Protein C Deficiency, patients on birth control pills, patients with cancer, patients with major trauma, patients who have had major surgeries, and anybody who is immobile for long periods of time. If you have had a DVT in the past, you are more likely to have another DVT than the average person. DVT’s are also slightly more common after very long (more than 8 hour) plane rides.
How can women protect themselves from DVT?
Dr. Kaufman: Most important, if you think that you may have a risk factor (such as a family history of blood clots), contact your physician for an evaluation. Staying well-hydrated, moving your legs frequently during long plane or car rides, and exercise are good standard measures. Also, knee-high or thigh high over-the-counter graded compression stockings that help squeeze the leg veins can prevent DVT. Women on birth control pills should not smoke.
What are the symptoms to watch for with DVT?
Dr. Kaufman: Unfortunately almost half of DVT’s are silent, especially if they are small or in small veins. The most common signs are achy pain in the affected limb, swelling, pain with use of the limb, and tenderness when squeezing the limb. If these symptoms are combined with shortness of breath, pain in the chest, or pain when taking a deep breath, this may indicate that a pulmonary embolism has occurred. In women, repeated unexplained spontaneous miscarriages can also be a sign of a clotting disorder that requires evaluation by a hematologist.
How is DVT diagnosed?
Dr. Kaufman: The best method is by ultrasound – it is quick, non-invasive, and does not require radiation. If your doctor suspects that you have had a pulmonary embolism, you will probably have a CT scan of the chest.
How is DVT treated?
Dr. Kaufman: You will need to be under the care of a physician and be prescribed some form of blood thinner – either heparin shots, coumadin (wafarin) pills, or both. You may need to spend a few nights in the hospital, but DVT is now often treated as an outpatient. Blood thinners are usually prescribed for 3-6 months, and may require monitoring with frequent blood tests. If your extremity gets more swollen or painful, or if you develop any chest symptoms, you should contact your doctor or go to an emergency room.
Do you have anything to add?
Dr. Kaufman: DVT is more common than we realize, and causes more problems than we think, but has many good treatments. We all know at least one family member or friend who has had a blood clot in a vein. The diagnosis is easy, so if you think you might have a blood clot, don’t hesitate to seek evaluation. If you are diagnosed with one, try to understand why it occurred, and follow up with any testing for a clotting disorder that your doctor orders.
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