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Deep vein thrombosis: Symptoms and risk factors

Why is a blood clot in the leg so serious?

Your blood is carried through the body by your veins and arteries, and continuously circulates. For a number of reasons, the veins deep inside the leg may develop a clot, usually in the calf or thigh, which may prevent proper blood flow and cause damage to the tissues of your foot or leg. This is a serious condition in and of itself, but even more serious is the risk of a piece of the clot breaking off and traveling to the lung. A clot that travels to the lung is known as a pulmonary embolism and is life threatening, as it significantly impairs your ability to breathe.

Symptoms of deep vein thrombosis in the leg

A deep vein thrombosis, or clot in the leg, can occur with or without symptoms. Most patients develop vague discomfort in one calf or thigh, and go on to experience pain or swelling. Some patients will also develop an area of warmth or redness that is fairly localized in the leg. Unfortunately, the symptoms of DVT may be similar to other less serious conditions. As a result, it is important to understand the risk factors associated with developing DVT. Patients who develop symptoms should undergo a medical evaluation right away, especially if they have any risk factors or have had DVT in the past. Symptoms are often worse with straightening or bending the leg or squeezing the calf muscle. In more severe cases where a piece of the clot has broken off and traveled to the lungs, the patient may experience difficulty with breathing.

Risk factors for DVT

There are a number of risk factors for DVT, some of which cannot be changed, and others that can be significantly reduced by changing certain behaviors, actions, or habits in your life.

DVT risk factors include:

  • Previous clots or history of blood clotting disorders
  • Varicose veins
  • Family history of clots or clotting disorders
  • Chronic leg edema (swelling or fluid retention)
  • Obesity
  • History of cancer or cardiovascular disease
  • Travel where mobility is restricted, such as a long car ride or flight
  • Use of estrogen from birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, especially in women who also smoke
  • Pregnancy or recent childbirth
  • Being over 40 years of age
  • Recent surgery or injury
  • Smoking

DVT can lead to further complications

DVT should be considered a medical emergency because it may lead to serious, life-threatening complications. Pieces of a blood clot in the leg can break off and travel through the circulatory system and into the lungs. A clot in the lung, called a pulmonary embolus or embolism, can result in serious complications, even death. Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism include chest pain, cough, fatigue, and feeling short of breath.

Preventing DVT

The level of risk a patient is at for developing DVT varies widely from person to person; however, some strategies can help reduce your risk of developing a clot. Even if you have never had DVT before or are at low risk, it is important to take steps to minimize your risk as much as possible. Although it may not be possible to prevent all instances of DVT from developing, the following steps may help:

  • If you smoke, make a plan to quit as soon as possible. Smoking is a significant risk factor for DVT in addition to many other illnesses and diseases.
  • Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight. Exercise improves cardiovascular health for most patients, in addition to reducing the risk of many other illnesses.
  • Any time you take a long car ride or flight, make an effort to move on a regular basis. Frequently stretch in your seat, rotate your ankles, and move your feet. On a plane, walk up and down the aisle several times, and on car trips, stop every few hours to walk around. Drink plenty of water and limit caffeine, alcohol, and sports or energy drinks.
  • If you are at high risk for DVT, your doctor may recommend wearing compression stockings or taking blood-thinning medications.
  • If prescribed blood-thinning medications, take them exactly as prescribed and keep any follow-up appointments with your doctor or for laboratory testing.

Diagnosing and treating DVT

If you suspect you have DVT or are concerned about other symptoms, seek emergency treatment right away. Typically, ultrasound is the ideal diagnostic tool, especially when combined with laboratory testing. Many patients are also required to undergo a CT scan of the chest, or a nuclear medicine ventilation study to have their lungs examined for a pulmonary embolism. Patients who are diagnosed with DVT or a pulmonary embolism are often started on anticoagulation medications such as warfarin (also called Coumadin), heparin, or newer generation medications. Many require hospital admission, followed by outpatient care and long-term monitoring by a primary care doctor, podiatrist, cardiologist, or pulmonologist. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and staying hydrated can all help reduce the risk of a recurrence of blood clots. Some patients may also benefit from wearing compression stockings to improve blood flow in their legs. In severe cases, surgery may be required.

To learn more about your DVT risk factors, or to have your legs or feet evaluated for common DVT symptoms or any other abnormalities, please call Kansas City Foot Specialists today at (913)338-4440.