Blood clots can be life-saving or life-threatening; it all depends on when and how they are formed. When a blood vessel is damaged, cells in our blood clump together at the injury site and create a gel-like mesh to prevent further blood loss. This type of clot is necessary to stop us from losing too much blood and usually dissolves over time.
But, clots that form abnormally can be dangerous and even fatal. Here’s why.
Why are blood clots or DVTs dangerous?
Blood clots, also known as DVTs (Deep Vein Thrombosis), can form in the deep veins of our body and obstruct blood flow. DVTs typically develop in the thighs, calves, pelvis, or arms. Without timely treatment, these clots can break off and travel to other organs, like the heart or lungs, and block blood flow. When a clot obstructs blood flow to the lungs, this condition is known as a pulmonary embolism (PE). If a DVT is large enough, a pulmonary embolism can cause severe lung damage and even death.
The American Heart Association notes that DVTs affect 300,000 to 600,000 Americans a year and are the third leading vascular diagnosis after heart attacks and stroke. According to the CDC, 100,000 people in the United States die from pulmonary embolisms every year. Worse, people with DVT may be at a higher risk of getting a heart attack or stroke.
Fortunately, blood clots are treatable. They can be controlled with medication, compression devices, and lifestyle adjustments if detected early. DVTs are often preventable so understanding your risk factors and the signs and symptoms can help you lower your risk of blood clots.
Risk factors for DVTs
Risk factors for DVTs are:
- Age (60 and older)
- Low activity levels: Calf muscles are powerful pumps for our circulation but for people who do not (or cannot) move for longer periods of time, there is a higher risk of developing DVTs
- Recent surgery: If one or more veins experienced damage during surgery, there is a greater risk of blood clots
- Smokers: Smoking encourages clotting factors in the blood like platelets to bind together, increasing the risk of clots. Smoking can also damage blood vessels, which can lead to clots
- Cancer or heart failure
- Family history and genetics: Certain inherited disorders affect clotting factors in the blood
Signs and Symptoms of a Blood Clot
How do you know if you have a DVT? Here are the main signs of a DVT, though it is important to note that sometimes, DVTs have no symptoms.
- Chest pain
- Faster heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling in the leg
- Pain or cramping in the calf
- Leg turns red or purple
- A warm feeling on a leg
The most common diagnostic tests for DVTs are:
- Physical examination by a healthcare provider
- Duplex Ultrasound: A diagnostic test that uses sound waves to evaluate blood flow and blood vessels.
D-dimer test: DVTs can be diagnosed through blood tests called D-Dimer tests. D-dimer is a protein found in blood clots. Higher levels of D-dimer may indicate the presence of DVTs.
DVTs can be treated with blood thinners and anticoagulants like heparin and warfarin. Blood thinners can prevent clots from growing in size and reduce the risk of developing more clots. If DVTs and PEs are more severe, they can be treated with a different class of drugs called thrombolytics. They are administered intravenously or through a catheter and are only used for severe cases because they cause heavy bleeding.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 50% of all DVTs develop during or after surgery or a hospital stay. One effective way to manage DVT risk at home after surgery is through compression devices, like pneumatic compression devices like stockings, pumps, and sleeves, or a combination of cold and compression therapy.
Other ways to prevent DVTs include lifestyle changes to lower risk factors. If you are a smoker, consider stopping — blood circulation improves within weeks of quitting.
For those with a sedentary lifestyle or a job requiring you to travel or sit at a desk for long periods, try to move around every hour. If you cannot get up and move, move your feet up and down to help improve your circulation. Also, avoid crossing your legs when you sit. It is also advisable to wear loose-fitting clothing. If you plan on traveling a lot, you could ask your doctor if you need compression stockings to improve circulation.
DVT Management for outpatient procedures
As more surgeries and procedures become available in outpatient settings, physicians try to minimize the risk of readmission from complications after surgery. One of the biggest risks for patients after surgery is immobilization which may lead to blood clots.
DVT prevention devices can help lower the risk of DVTs. These devices can also reduce dependence on medication for DVT risk management.