Deep vein thrombosis – more than just a pain in the leg
Doctors have always been very good at coming up with long complicated names for medical conditions. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just to make ourselves feel more important. Deep vein thrombosis – often called DVT - is a classic example. Thrombosis just means clot. But the most serious complication of a DVT is another kind of clot. This is called a pulmonary embolus (PE). The difference is that an embolus is a clot that travels from somewhere else in your body. So a clot deep in the veins in your leg can get carried in your blood system to your lungs, where it gets stuck. The PE that results can be fatal.
DVT – why do I need to worry?
DVTs are very common, especially if you are in hospital for any length of time. They also become more of an issue as you get older. It is estimated that they kill a worrying 32,000 people every year in the UK. Fortunately, there are lots of simple ways you can guard against getting a DVT in the first place. What’s more, there are better and better medicines to prevent them if you are at high risk.
What causes DVT?
The pressure in your veins - the blood vessels which take blood back to your heart – is much lower than in your arteries, which carry blood from your heart round your body. That means that they get more easily squashed, stopping the blood from circulating. If this happens, a clot can form, blocking off the blood supply. If this happens in your leg, it can cause pain, redness and swelling in the leg (usually in your calf). If the clot moves to your lungs, it can cause:
- Sudden shortness of breath.
- Sharp chest pain, which is worse when you breathe.
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Coughing up of blood.
What increases my risk of DVT?
The biggest risk factors for DVT include:
- Being immobile.
- Being on oral contraception or HRT.
- Having had a DVT in the past.
- Having a heart attack.
- Having an operation, especially on the joints of your leg (an orthopaedic operation).
- Being overweight.
- Having high blood pressure.
If you are having surgery on your legs or pelvis, you are at especially high risk. You should be offered medicine to reduce the chance of getting a DVT if you are having this sort of operation. The most commonly used medicine is a daily injection called heparin. However, there are several new tablets, called rivaroxoban, dabigatran and apixaban, which are also now available if you’re having this sort of surgery. You should also be given compression stockings to wear. If you aren’t, ask your doctors why not.
Preventing DVTs – put your best foot forward!
We’ve all heard about the risks of DVT after long trips on aeroplanes. Actually, they aren’t that common, but doctors do recommend getting up and walking around regularly, avoiding alcohol (which causes dehydration) and regular leg exercises. In fact, all of us can benefit from these simple exercises to cut the risk of DVT and keep our ankles trim at the same time.
Turning circles. While you’re sitting, cross one leg over the other and rotate your ankle slowly in complete circles ten times. Swap legs and repeat. Try this on the bus or train, or in the car.
Toned ankles, toned calves. Point your toes, then lift them up so your heels are on the floor. Repeat this at least ten times every few minutes. You can do it while you’re talking on the phone, working on your computer or just reading.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.