DVT can develop after long plane rides with particularly cramped seating and leg room. Other factors, such as low cabin pressure, low humidity and dehydration, can also contribute to developing DVT during a long flight. People with a history of cardiovascular disease or stroke and those who have had previous blood clots are at risk for DVT. However, the condition can also affect healthy, athletic people, and you don’t have to fly to get it.
Despite the name coach class syndrome, DVT can also affect those on the ground. Women who are pregnant or taking hormonal birth control can be at risk due to increased estrogen levels, which can cause blood to clot more easily. Staying stationary for extended periods of time can also increase risk of DVT because the veins deep in the legs require muscle movement to force blood back to the lungs and heart.
Once a blood clot has formed in a deep vein, a new problem can arise – the clot can break off, traveling through the bloodstream to obstruct a vessel in the lungs, creating a pulmonary embolism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 900,000 Americans develop DVT each year and up to 100,000 of them die from complications like pulmonary embolisms.
In the past, standard treatment included an extended hospital stay for anticoagulant and blood thinner drug therapy. During this therapy, patients walked a tightrope – too little medicine could lead to catastrophic clotting, but too much could cause life-threatening major bleeding.
Today, cardiovascular surgeons and cardiologists, can use a tiny catheter to remove the blood clot faster and more safely than they could with past treatment methods. During the procedure, the surgeon inserts a specially designed catheter into the vein and through the clot. Once the blood clot is isolated, clot-busting drugs are delivered, and high intensity vibrations break up the clot. The surgeon then removes the catheter with any remnants of medication, allowing the blood to again circulate through the vein. The entire procedure takes less than two hours.
Even if you are at risk for DVT, you can take steps to prevent it. As with many health conditions, getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and lowering your blood pressure can lower your risk. When traveling, try to get up and move at least once every four hours. If you are stuck in your seat, work your leg muscles by stretching your legs or flexing your feet. Staying hydrated and wearing compression stockings can also help.
Contact your doctor if you are concerned about your risk for DVT or if you have symptoms of DVT, such as leg swelling or pain, warm skin on your leg, red or discolored skin on your leg or tired legs. If you experience sharp chest pain, shortness of breath, sudden coughing or severe lightheadedness, seek immediate medical attention because these could be signs of a pulmonary embolism.
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About the author
Raymond Vetsch, MD, is a cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon at Freeman Health System. Vetsch joined Freeman Heart & Vascular Institute in Joplin in 1998. He is a nationally recognized surgeon of human heart valve transplants, and he specializes in complex and innovative valve procedures. To learn more about cardiovascular health, visit freemanhealth.com/heart or freemanhealth.com/heart-assessment.