When planning a trip, you've most likely considered a number of health scenarios, from motion sickness to headaches to sun burns to indigestion. But few consider one of the most serious threats of all: deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a potentially life-threatening condition that can result from extended periods of travel.
"DVT is sometimes dubbed 'the economy-class syndrome'," said Dr. Mehran Moussavian, an interventional cardiologist affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. "It is often associated with long periods of immobility, including flights, bed rest, surgery or confinement to cramped quarters.
"DVT occurs when blood clots form in the deep veins of the legs and thighs, which, unlike superficial veins, cannot be seen to the naked eye. When a clot forms, blood flow can become blocked, causing swelling and pain. In serious cases, the clot can lead to embolisms, which can cause tissue death, respiratory failure or other potentially fatal conditions.
DVT occurs in more than 900,000 people every year and can strike both men and women. However, because of hormonal factors, such as giving birth or taking estrogen or birth control pills, women have a slightly higher risk.
DVT risk factors include:
- Race: African-Americans have the greatest risk, followed by Caucasians; Asian-Americans and Native Americans have the lowest risk.
- Age: The risk for DVT doubles for each 10-year increase after age 50.
- Underlying conditions: Other health factors increase the risk of developing DVT including pregnancy, cancer, dehydration, obesity and smoking.
- Family history: Those with family members who have experienced DVT are at a greater risk of developing the dangerous clots.
"Most people don't need to take special precautions to reduce their risk for DVT," explains Dr. Moussavian. "However, it's a good idea for anyone immobile for a prolonged period of time to simply stand up, stretch and exercise their calves, as well as drink water regularly, to aid mobility."
Dr. Moussavian suggests that those at particular risk for DVT can take a physician-approved nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as aspirin, or a blood thinner like heparin to reduce the risk of clot formation.
If a clot has already formed, a doctor may prescribe oral blood thinners like Coumadin, compression stockings or venous thrombectomy, a surgical procedure performed with catheters.
"Fortunately, more than 90 percent of patients survive their first DVT episode," said Dr. Moussavian. "However, DVT usually strikes more than once, so awareness of potential risk factors and preventive measures is critical."