Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) might be the most dangerous medical condition you’ve never heard. Unlike heart attacks and strokes, this exceptionally common cardiovascular problem doesn’t seem to draw a lot of public interest or attention.
But here’s why it should: Every year in the United States, DVT causes about 300,000 people to develop a blood clot in a vein deep below the skin, usually in one of their legs. DVT blood clots are a major cause of pulmonary embolisms, and pulmonary embolisms are the leading cause of death among hospital patients.
Because DVT is both underdiagnosed and serious, our team at Vascular Institute of New York strives to help our patients understand their personal risk factors as well as the importance of early diagnosis and treatment. Here’s what you should know.
DVT occurs when your blood thickens into a solid clump, forming a clot in a vein deep below the surface of your skin. Although DVT can affect any vein in your body, the condition affects large leg veins (in the thigh or lower leg) most often.
DVT is usually a silent problem, meaning it develops without any obvious symptoms or warning signs. When symptoms do occur, they’re often in the form of swelling, redness, and pain along the affected vein.
When DVT goes undetected and untreated, it can lead to chronic vein inflammation, varicose veins, painful venous claudication, chronic venous insufficiency, and persistent skin ulcers near the site of the affected vein.
Even more worrisome, DVT clots can break off, travel to your lungs, and cause a dangerous (or deadly) pulmonary embolism or blockage in your heart.
DVT risk factors
Because DVT often develops without any noticeable symptoms — and because newly formed DVT clots are more likely than older clots to break away, travel through your bloodstream, and endanger your health or your life — DVT requires prompt diagnosis and treatment.
Knowing your personal risk factors for DVT is one of the best ways to protect yourself against this highly preventable problem. Any one of these factors puts you at risk for DVT:
1. Prolonged inactivity
DVT occurs when something causes the blood flow in your veins to slow down or change. While this can happen spontaneously, it’s usually the result of an outside factor. Prolonged inactivity of any kind, such as being on bed rest, sitting for hours every day, or even sitting in one position for too long (such as during car or airplane travel) can cause DVT.
2. Vein injury
Any time a vein sustains damage, it’s at an increased risk of developing DVT. A bone fracture or severe muscle injury in your pelvis or leg can boost your chances of developing DVT if it affects a nearby vein.
Certain surgical procedures (hip, knee, bariatric, or female pelvic surgery) are also associated with an increased risk of DVT; veins that have been damaged by dialysis catheters and PICC lines are also susceptible.
3. Hypercoagulable states
The term “hypercoagulable state” refers to any disease or condition that causes your blood to clot more easily. Cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and certain autoimmune disorders (such as lupus or inflammatory bowel disease) qualify as hypercoagulable states that increase the risk of DVT.
4. Increased estrogen
Having higher than normal estrogen levels can also increase your risk of developing DVT blood clots. Taking certain forms of hormonal birth control medication can leave you more prone to developing DVT, as can taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) following menopause.
Because pregnancy also causes a surge of estrogen, women who are pregnant or up to three months postpartum have a greater risk of DVT.
5. Health history
Although DVT is more common in adults older than 60, it can happen at any age, particularly if you have any health-related risk factors. You’re at greater risk of developing a deep-vein blood clot if you’re overweight or obese or if you have a family history of DVT, pulmonary embolisms, or clotting disorders. Your risk also goes up if you’re a smoker.
DVT is highly treatable and preventable with early detection and care. In most cases, taking anticoagulant medication (blood thinners) is all it takes to reduce the size and threat of deep-vein blood clots.
Remember, a pulmonary embolism is a medical emergency. If you or a loved one ever experiences shortness of breath, chest pain, and/or a cough that may be accompanied by blood, seek immediate medical attention.
If you’re worried about your risk factors for DVT, our team at Vascular Institute of New York can help. Call our New York City office in Borough Park, Brooklyn, today, or click online to book an appointment with one of our vein specialists.