Blood Clots and Athletes

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In 2011, Serena Williams underwent emergency treatment for a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot that had traveled to her lungs. The tennis champion was 29 years old at the time, making her diagnosis a surprise to many. Typically, pulmonary embolisms (PE) and related deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occur in older adults, with the risk of incidence doubling each decade after age 60.

Though a surprise, Williams's health scare illustrates an important point: PE and DVT are not just problems for the elderly. They can affect everyone, even athletes who are young, active, and healthy.

In some cases, health care professionals miss or delay diagnosis of these conditions in athletes because of their age and health. In fact, athletes have a host of special considerations when it comes to DVT and PE.

Athlete-Specific Risk Factors for DVT and PE

Even athletes who appear to be healthy and extremely physically fit can be at risk for developing life-threatening blood clots. Athletes, non-athletes, coaches, and trainers alike should be aware of the following risk factors:

  • Family history of DVT or PE. If you have family members who have experienced problems with DVT, you may be at increased genetic risk for the conditions as well.
  • Long-distance travel, sitting on airplanes or in buses or cars, en route to sports competitions. Long periods of sitting during airplane, bus, and car travel en route to sports competitions can put athletes at increased risk of DVT.
  • Dehydration after a strenuous exercise or workout.
  • Serious trauma to limbs, bone fracture, or major surgery.
  • Immobilized limb in a brace or a cast.

Play Good Defense

There are steps that athletes can take to prevent dangerous blood clots. Foremost among them is learning to recognize the symptoms of DVT and PE. Symptoms of DVT include swelling in your leg (or arms, especially if you are a weight lifter, gymnast, or rower), pain in your limbs, skin discolorations, or a leg that is warm to the touch. Symptoms of PE include sudden shortness of breath, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, cough (sometimes with blood), and fainting or passing out.

If you experience any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor immediately. The faster you can get treatment, the more likely you are to head off long-term consequences.

Take preventive measures such as stretching during long periods of travel and staying hydrated. In the case of a sports-related injury that lands you in the hospital or in surgery, talk to your doctor about your risk factors. Ask whether a prophylaxis treatment, medication to help prevent clots from forming, is appropriate. Your doctor will be able to tell you when you should take medicine and for how long.