Veins deep in the legs and pelvis can harbor a dangerous blood clot known as a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). If the blood clot breaks off, it can travel into the lungs where it can result in a pulmonary embolism (PE) – a life-threatening condition where the clot becomes lodged in the pulmonary arteries and restricts the blood supply to the heart.
“Pulmonary embolism results in more than 100,000 deaths per year in the United States alone, but both DVT and PE can be treated if they are recognized early,” says Dr. Samuel Z. Goldhaber, director of the Thrombosis Research Group at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and founder of the North American Thrombosis Forum (NATF). “Risks can also be minimized to prevent these conditions.”
Risk Factors and Symptoms for DVT and PE
DVT and PE can affect anyone, and the risk factors are broad. Some of the major risk factors include:
- Surgery, fractures, or severe muscle injury (especially involving the abdomen, pelvis, hip, or legs)
- Pregnancy or use of birth control pills containing estrogen
- Being extremely sedentary, such as confinement to bed for medical condition or after surgery or sitting for a long time (especially with crossed legs) during an overseas plane ride
- Chronic medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease, cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Personal or family history of DVT or PE
While DVT and PE can present without symptoms, the most common signs of these conditions include:
- DVT – Pain, heat, or swelling at the site of the clot, sometimes described as a persistent “charley horse” cramping in the calf or other part of the leg
- PE – Sudden shortness of breath, chest pain, fainting, or severe anxiety
Treatment for DVT and PE
Primary treatment for DVT and PE includes blood thinners (anticoagulants). Clots that are found in the veins can be dissolved in other ways as well. One newer technique is the use of ultrasound treatment in combination with anticoagulants.
“We have been pioneers in the development new treatments for DVT and PE and ways to prevent these conditions,” said Dr. Goldhaber. “One example is the use of a filter in the largest vein that can catch a large DVT before it becomes fatal.”
Preventing DVT and PE
There are numerous ways to reduce your risk for developing DVT and PE, including:
- Staying hydrated and changing positions/moving as frequently as possible when traveling
- Daily exercise, such as 30 minutes of moderate activity each day
- Nutritious diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Awareness of concerning symptoms or changes in your body.
“If you have multiple risk factors for DVT or PE, it is important to work with a vascular medicine specialist who can help manage these risks,” said Dr. Goldhaber.