When tennis champion Serena Williams was hospitalized in March for a blood clot in her lung, it shed light on a dangerous condition that is far more common than people think. In fact, venous thromboembolism (VTE), a term that encompasses both deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and its possibly fatal consequence pulmonary embolism (PE), is responsible for more deaths per year than breast cancer, car crashes and AIDS combined, according to the Venous Disease Coalition (http://www.venousdiseasecoalition.org/).
“I certainly never want to create panic in my patients, but if a fair amount of fear makes people more aware, that’s important,” says Dr. Michael A. Vasquez, clinical assistant professor of surgery at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “VTE is potentially life-threatening, but treatable and largely preventable.”
Deep vein thrombosis is the medical term for a clot that forms in the deep vein of the leg. “This is different than clots that form in the superficial veins—those aren’t dangerous because they can’t travel,” Vasquez says. “But clots in the deep veins can propagate and move, and travel up to the lungs.” Symptoms of DVT include pain or swelling in the calf area or behind the knee, and occasionally redness or tenderness in that area.
If a clot travels to the lung and causes a blockage, it’s called a pulmonary embolism, which can result in sudden death. (David Bloom, an NBC News anchor and reporter, died as a result of DVT and PE while embedded in Iraq in 2003.)
The Venous Disease Coalition was founded in 2007 to raise awareness of what it calls a “major public health hazard” that is relatively easy to prevent.
First, it’s important to understand who is most in danger of developing VTE and why. Major risk factors include a family history of clots, smoking, pregnancy, obesity, cancer patients, women taking hormonal birth control, and people over 70.
But two-thirds of VTE cases occur in people who have been hospitalized for surgery or other illness.
“Whenever patients have surgery, there are always inflammatory factors released into the bloodstream,” Vasquez says. “That inflammation can predispose clot formation.”
Plus, patients are often immobile after surgery—or during prolonged hospitalization or recovery for other illnesses—which hinders circulation. The stagnation of blood flow can cause a clot.
“Before you have surgery, remind your doctors and ask, ‘What are you doing to prevent me from having a DVT?’“ Vasquez says. “They can prescribe compression stockings and blood thinning medication.”
After surgery, make sure to get up and walk around as much as you are able, especially after you’ve been asleep.
Another common cause of VTE is traveling, which often finds people in confined spaces for hours at a time. For this reason, it’s sometimes dubbed “economy class syndrome.”
People at higher risk for VTE should consider wearing compression stockings (which can also be purchased over-the-counter) on long plane or car trips. The tight-fitting socks help force the blood to circulate.
And for all fliers, though it may be tempting to remain in your seat for a long flight and not trouble your neighbor to let you out of the row, it’s crucial to get up and stretch your legs periodically. “Three hours is the magic number,” says Vasquez.
Drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated, which can prevent VTE, and ensure that you’ll likely need to get up from your seat to use the restroom at some point.
In general, maintaining a lifestyle that promotes good circulation, including regular exercise, proper hydration and a healthy weight, will decrease your chances of developing a clot.
There’s no need to panic about the possibility of developing VTE after a hospitalization or vacation, but being aware can drastically improve your chances of avoiding or surviving the condition.
“Be suspicious,” Vasquez says. “If you develop significant pain or swelling in the leg that you can’t explain otherwise and you are at risk, call your doctor.”