If your holiday plans include air travel, you’re probably already dreading the cramped quarters of your airplane seat. These tight spaces aren’t just uncomfortable, but they also can be problematic to your health.
“During air travel, cramped seats and limited mobility create a physical obstruction to a person’s blood flow,” says Dr. Asha Devereaux, MPH, a pulmonary medicine doctor affiliated with Sharp Coronado Hospital.
“This poor circulation can result in swelling of the legs, discoloration of the skin, varicose veins and even blood clots. And when these blood clots form within the large deep veins of the leg, it’s known as deep vein thrombosis,” she says.
The chances of blood clots are rare, with research from the World Health Organization showing that about 1 in 4,500 air travelers will develop a clot. However, the risk of a clot should be taken seriously because “blood clots in your veins can break loose, travel through your bloodstream and lodge in your lungs, blocking blood flow. This is known as a pulmonary embolism, which can be fatal,” says Dr. Deveraux.
Passengers who are dehydrated, overweight, use oral contraceptives, have a prior history of deep vein thrombosis, travel more than four hours, or have a recent extremity fracture or injury are at increased risk. The good news is that there are simple things you can do to decrease your risk of developing blood clots.
Dr. Devereaux recommends that passengers maintain hydration, stay away from sedatives and alcohol, and avoid crossing legs. “You should also get up and walk every one to two hours during air travel,” she says.
However, getting up to walk around that often may not be feasible. Chris McKee, MPT, lead rehab therapist at Sharp Coronado’s Sewall Healthy Living Center, provides a few exercises that can be done while seated.
“These exercises may seem overly simple, but they promote circulation, which can keep your blood circulating properly and help prevent life-threatening blood clots,” says McKee.
- Flex and Point. Sit with your knee at a 45-degree angle and move your foot up and down, tilting at the ankle joint. Do two sets of 10 tilts every one to two hours.
- Shoulder Roll. While sitting, raise your shoulders upward toward ears, and then roll down and backward. Return to starting position. Try two sets of 10 rolls.
- Leg Lifts. Sit with your feet on the floor. Alternate slowly lifting your left and right knee up and down while keeping your abdominal muscles tightened. Try two sets of 10 lifts.