Preventing Venous Thromboembolism

Techniques to head off potentially life-threatening blood clots

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is the formation of a blood clot in the deep veins, frequently in one of the legs. These clots can travel from the leg to lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism (PE). Known collectively as venous thromboembolism, these conditions can be life threatening if left untreated. In fact, between 60,000 and 100,000 people die each year of venous thromboembolism in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A number of factors can increase your risk, including a previous history of DVT, advanced age, obesity, cancer, smoking, heart disease, long periods of sitting during travel, or being bedbound due to hospitalization or injury. Luckily, there are a number of steps that can help you reduce your chances of developing a blood clot in the first place. As with many diseases, a proverbial ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Know Your Risk Factors

Venous thromboembolism is one of the most common preventable causes of hospital-related death. If you are preparing for surgery or a hospital stay, discuss your risk factors with your doctor and nurse. They can help you determine a course of treatment that will decrease your likelihood of developing a clot.

Ask About Preventative Medicine

Simple preventative treatments, known as prophylaxis, can help reduce the incidence of clotting by an estimated 70 percent, according to the Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality. Ask your doctor if you will be receiving prophylaxis, and if not, find out the reason why.

Stay Active

When you get the green light to move after hospitalization or surgery, or if you are a long-distance traveler, staying active can help prevent clotting in your legs. Get up and walk around when possible. If your mobility is restricted -- on a long flight, for example -- try leg exercises, like tightening and releasing your leg muscles or raising and lowering your heels to the floor. Sit in an aisle seat whenever possible so you can stretch your legs. Ask your doctor about compression socks, which can help prevent clots from forming.

Recognize the Symptoms

Understanding the symptoms of venous thromboembolism can help you seek immediate medical attention to help head off complications and possible death.

Symptoms of DVT include:

  • Swelling and pain in the affected limb
  • Redness or warmth in the affected limb

Symptoms of PE include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Light-headedness and fainting

If you experience these symptoms, doctors can run tests, such as ultrasounds, to determine whether you have either condition. Both DVT and PE are treatable. Medications can help dissolve the clots and are often taken for many months after a diagnosis is made to help prevent further clotting.