What is a DVT?

DVT stands for Deep Vein Thrombosis. This is a blood clot that forms in one or more of the deep veins in the body. These clots usually develop in the lower leg, thigh, or pelvis, but can also occur in the arm or other large veins. An abnormal clot that forms in a deep vein may restrict the return of blood to the heart and can result in symptoms.

Common DVT Symptoms:

  • Swelling in one arm or leg
  • Pain or tenderness not caused by injury
  • Skin that is warm to the touch
  • Redness or discoloration of the skin

Since the symptoms of a DVT can be similar to other conditions, like a pulled muscle or the flu, this often leads to delay in diagnosis. Some people with a DVT may have no symptoms at all.

What is a PE?

PE stands for Pulmonary Embolism. A PE occurs when part, or all, of a clot breaks off and travels through the bloodstream and into the lung(s). If the clot is small, and with appropriate treatment, people can recover from PE. However, there could be some damage to the lungs. If the clot is large, it can stop blood from reaching the lungs and can be life-threatening.

Common PE Symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing or feeling short of breath
  • Chest pain that worsens with a deep breath or lying down
  • Coughing or coughing up blood
  • Faster than normal heartbeat or irregular heartbeat

Complications of DVT/PE

One-third to one-half of people who have a DVT will have long-term complications caused by the damage the clot does to the valves in the vein called post-thrombotic syndrome (PTS). People with PTS have symptoms such as swelling, pain, discoloration, and in severe cases, scaling or ulcers in the affected part of the body. In some cases, the symptoms can be so severe that a person becomes disabled.

For some people, DVT and PE can become a chronic illness; about 30% of people who have had a DVT or PE are at risk for another episode.

Risk Factors for DVT

  • Injury to a vein, often caused by:
    • Fractures
    • Severe muscle injury
    • Major surgery (particularly involving the abdomen, pelvis, hip, or legs)
  • Slow blood flow, often caused by:
    • Confinement to bed (e.g., due to a medical condition or after surgery)
    • Limited movement (e.g., a cast on a leg to help heal an injured bone)
    • Sitting for a long time, especially with crossed leg
    • Paralysis
  • Increased estrogen, often caused by:
    • Birth control pills
    • Hormone replacement therapy, sometimes used after menopause
    • Pregnancy, for up to 3 months after giving birth
  • Certain chronic medical illnesses, such as:
    • Heart disease
    • Lung disease
    • Cancer and its treatment
    • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis)
  • Other factors that increase the risk of DVT include:
    • Previous DVT or PE
    • Family history of DVT or PE
    • Age (risk increases as age increases)
    • Obesity
    • A catheter located in a central vein
    • Inherited clotting disorders

Preventing DVT

  • Move around as soon as possible after having been confined to bed, such as after surgery, illness, or injury
  • If you’re at risk for DVT, talk to your doctor about:
    • Graduated compression stockings
    • Medication (anticoagulants) to prevent DVT
  • When sitting for long periods of time, such as when traveling for more than four hours:
    • Get up and walk around every 1 to 2 hours
  • Exercise your legs while you’re sitting by:
    • Raising and lowering your heels while keeping your toes on the floor
    • Raising and lowering your toes while keeping your heels on the floor
    • Tightening and releasing your leg muscles
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes
  • You can reduce your risk by maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding a sedentary lifestyle, and following your doctor’s recommendations based on your individual risk factors