Written by Dr. Nathan Orr, a vascular surgeon at UK HealthCare.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a dangerous condition where a blood clot forms in the larger veins of our body due to slow blood flow, blood vessel damage or increased tendency to clot.
What is deep vein thrombosis?
When we cut or scrape our skin, the clotting process creates a scab. When that process begins inside our bodies – typically in the blood vessels in our legs or thighs – the resulting clot, also known as a thrombus, can break off and travel through the blood stream to an artery in the lungs, blocking blood flow and causing life-threatening complications such as a pulmonary embolism.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 100,000 Americans die each year from DVT/pulmonary embolism – more than deaths from breast cancer, motor vehicle accidents and HIV combined.
Symptoms of DVT
Only about half of the people who have DVT have noticeable symptoms. Symptoms include:
- Swelling of the legs or arms.
- Severe pain when standing or walking.
- Warmer skin in the affected area.
- Enlarged veins.
- Bluish or reddish skin.
Although DVT can occur at any age, it is more common in people over 50. Risk factors for DVT include:
- A family history of DVT.
- Undergoing hormone therapy or taking birth control pills.
- Injury to a deep vein caused by surgery or trauma.
- Having a catheter placed in a vein.
- Prolonged bed rest that leads to slow blood flow in deep veins.
- Being overweight or obese.
Some people may not realize they have DVT until they are affected by a pulmonary embolism, which leads to low blood oxygen levels, lung damage, heart failure and death.
Signs of this pulmonary embolism are sudden shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing up blood, dizziness, rapid pulse and fever. If you have any of these symptoms, especially if you are at risk for DVT, seek immediate medical attention.
Treatment for DVT
DVT can be treated with medicines and other devices that reduce the chance of blood clots, stop them from getting bigger, and/or prevent them from breaking off and traveling to vital organs of our body.
The most common medicines to treat DVT are anticoagulants, also called blood thinners, that prevent the formation of new blood clots.
Other treatments include filters implanted in a large vein to catch blood clots before they travel into the bloodstream. Graduated compression stockings are also used to reduce leg swelling caused by blood clots.
If you are at risk for DVT or pulmonary embolism, it is important to take preventive measures. Have regular medical checkups, take your prescribed medicine and exercise regularly – especially your lower leg muscles – after surgery and during long trips.