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6 ways to reduce your risk of deep vein thrombosis

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If blood clots form in your legs, they can break free and block blood flow to your lungs. Here’s how to assess your risk and help keep yourself safe.

Rosemary Black

By Rosemary Black

You probably don’t think about your deep veins very much. They’re larger than arteries but less visible than the surface-level veins you can see through your skin. But they’re also important.

According to UAB Medicine, 90% to 95% of the blood that enters your legs relies on deep veins to travel back to your heart. So when a clot forms in one of these cardiovascular superhighways, it’s a problem. And the problem has a name: deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

DVT can also occur in your arms or around your organs, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But it’s most common in the lower legs, pelvis or thighs. In some cases, DVT can be fatal. But the good news is that you can defend yourself.

“DVT is definitely preventable,” says Alain Tanbe, MD. He’s a board-certified vascular surgeon at the Vascular Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. He says that by understanding the risk and adopting a few preventive habits, you can avoid the worst outcomes of DVT.

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Why deep vein thrombosis is dangerous

The clot that causes DVT is formed when platelets, proteins and blood cells clump together inside a deep vein. And the biggest risk is that part of the clot will break off and travel through your bloodstream, passing through your heart and settling in an artery that leads to your lungs. That’s called a pulmonary embolism (PE), and it prevents blood from reaching your lungs.

DVTs and PEs together affect about 900,000 people per year in the U.S., according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And the ones that block blood flow to the lungs can starve your body of oxygen. “Up to 100,000 people a year die due to these conditions,” says Jeremy Podolnick, MD. He’s an assistant professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City.

People with DVT in a leg may experience swelling and pain in their calf, foot, ankle or thigh, according to the Merck Manual. The skin in the affected area may become red or warm to the touch. These symptoms can also occur in the arm if the DVT is there.

About half of people with DVT will have no symptoms until the clot breaks free and blocks a lung artery. In that case, you could experience chest pain or shortness of breath. According to the CDC, about 1 in 4 people with a PE die with no warning.

Who is at risk of deep vein thrombosis?

One scary aspect of DVT is that it can be hard to predict. “DVT can affect people of all ages,” says Dr. Podolnick.

But there are a few things that make DVTs more likely. According to data collected by StatPearls, up to 80% of people have at least one identifiable risk factor.

According to University of Michigan Health, known risk factors include:

  • Personal and family history. Your risk is higher if you or someone you’re related to has had blood clots in the past.
  • Pregnancy. The risk of DVT goes up during pregnancy and stays elevated for 6 weeks after delivery. According to the CDC, PE is one of the leading causes of death during and immediately after pregnancy.
  • Obesity. A body mass index of 30 or above increases the risk of clotting.
  • Surgery. Major surgeries come with a risk of DVT. The risk is highest with orthopedic surgeries, according to the Merck Manual.
  • Long periods of sitting. According to recent studies, people who travel for long periods by plane or automobile (such as truck drivers) are 2 to 4 times more likely to have DVT.

If you’re concerned about your risk or you’ve already been diagnosed with DVT, here’s what you should do about it.

DVT prevention tip #1: Walk often

Long periods of sitting raise the risk of DVT, says Aleksandre Toreli, MD. He’s a cardiologist with NYC Health + Hospitals/Coney Island. Even if you exercise often, you should break up long sedentary periods with short walks — even if it’s just to the kitchen to refill your water glass. “Move a little bit as often as you can,” says Dr. Toreli.

If you need a more specific benchmark, try this: “Stretch your legs every 2 to 3 hours,” says Dr. Podolnick. That means you should never sit still for longer than the length of a movie.

DVT prevention tip #2: Master the seated leg workout      

It’s important to keep blood flowing even when you can’t stand up to stretch — for instance, if you’re on bed rest or taking a long flight.

“To do this, just tighten and release your leg muscles,” says I-Hui “Ann” Chiang, MD. She works in the department of interventional cardiology at Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix.

Flexing your legs every so often will keep your blood flowing. To change things up, try periodically raising and lowering your heels while keeping your toes on the floor.

DVT prevention tip #3: If you smoke, stop

Smoking can damage the lining of your blood vessels and make it more likely that platelets will stick together, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Both can increase the risk of clotting. Here’s how to quit smoking.

DVT prevention tip #4: Maintain a healthy weight

People with obesity are more than twice as likely to have a pulmonary embolism, according to research from the University of Arizona. If you’re able to lose weight with diet and exercise, you should.

If those strategies aren’t working, you have other options. Here’s what you should know about medication to treat obesity.

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DVT prevention tip #5: Schedule a coagulation factor test

“If someone has a strong family history of DVT, check with your primary doctor about getting a workup to see if you are at high risk of developing a clot,” says Dr. Tanbe.

The test you’ll most likely get is a coagulation factor test. It’s a simple blood test that looks for compounds that are likely to create blood clots.

DVT prevention tip #6: Wear compression socks

People at risk of DVT should wear compression socks around surgery time, says Dr. Tanbe. They help keep blood flowing by applying pressure to the legs.

In addition, your physician may recommend a blood-thinning medication. And the AHA recommends getting out of bed as quickly as possible after surgery.

DVT can be scary, but if you know you’re at risk, you can take the right steps to avoid a life-threatening situation.

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Additional sources
The hierarchy of veins:
UAB Medicine
DVT overview: Cleveland Clinic
How blood clots: Medline Plus
DVT/PE estimates: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Deep vein thrombosis risk factors: American Heart Association
Deep vein thrombosis risk factors: StatPearls
Deep vein thrombosis overview: Merck Manual
Blood clot stats: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Clotting risks: American Heart Association
Obesity and pulmonary embolism: Respiratory Investigation (2019). “Obesity is strongly and independently associated with a higher prevalence of pulmonary embolism”
Compression socks and DVT: Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2018). “Graduated compression stockings for prevention of deep vein thrombosis during a hospital stay”