What is DVT?

March is Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) Awareness Month, a public health initiative to bring notice to a common medical condition and its potentially fatal complication. The problem with DVT is that most Americans have little or no awareness of what it is or how much they may be at risk.1 According to the American Medical Association, approximately two million people suffer from DVT each year which is more than the annual amount of people affected by a heart attack or stroke.1 What do you need to know about DVT?

What is DVT?

Deep vein thrombosis occurs when a blood clot, also called a thrombus, forms in one or more of the deep veins in your body. It is most likely to occur in your legs in either your thigh or calf muscle.1, 2 In rare occasions, a DVT will occur in both legs. While DVT’s are more likely to form in one of your legs, there are times when they can occur in other parts of your body.3

Clots may form due to a variety of different conditions. A blood clot can form if the inner lining of your veins has been damaged from surgery, serious injury, inflammation or by an immune system response.3 They may also form if your blood flow is slow or sluggish due to lack of motion either from being on bed rest, recovering from surgery or sitting still for long periods when traveling. Occasionally an inherited condition or medication can make your blood thicker, increasing its likeliness to clot as well.3

Signs and Symptoms of DVT

One of the ways to help spread awareness of DVT is to know the symptoms when you see or feel them. When a patient has DVT, they can experience leg pain, leg tenderness or skin that is warmer to touch. The leg pain can come on gradually, persisting for weeks with redness, swelling or discoloration of the affected area.2 While it may not seem like a concern to bring to your doctor, one of the most concerning issues surrounding DVT is a common complication known as a pulmonary embolism, when the clot from your leg moves to your lungs.

Some people don’t realize they have DVT until they have a pulmonary embolism; DVT can occur without any symptoms of leg discomfort.2,3

Risk and Diagnosis      

Certain conditions can put you at a higher risk for DVT than others. These situations include:2

  • An inherited a blood-clotting disorder 
  • Smoking
  • A personal or family history of DVT
  • Cancer
  • A prolonged hospital stay or bed rest
  • Heart Failure
  • Recovery from a surgery or injury
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Age
  • Taking birth control pills or being on hormone replacement therapy
  • Having to sit for long periods of time when driving or flying

Based on these conditions, it can depend on how likely it is you can have DVT. If you are having symptoms, your doctor may suggest different tests to see if you have a clot within the veins of your legs. An ultrasound can show whether or not there is a clot. Your physician can also order a D-dimer blood test. When your body experiences a clot, it will release a substance called D-dimer that can dissolve a clot. If a D-dimer test shows a high level in your blood, you may have a deep vein clot.3 In more severe cases, your physician can also perform a venography or MRI scan.

Treatment and Prevention of DVT

If you have been diagnosed with DVT, your treatment will focus on preventing the clot from getting bigger or breaking loose and causing a pulmonary embolism. Another complication that can occur from DVT is postphlebitic syndrome (postthrombotic syndrome) which is a result of the damage done to the veins. The symptoms include edema (swelling of the legs), leg pain, skin discoloration and skin sores. Sometimes these symptoms will not occur until a few years after you experienced your DVT.2

Once your physician has taken care of the initial DVT, the goal becomes reducing your chances of another clot forming. Your treatment can vary depending on the initial cause of the DVT. Your treatment options can include taking a blood thinner like warfarin, clotbusters (reserved for more serious conditions), filters placed in your veins or compression stockings.2 Take your medication as directed, include regular movement and exercise in your routine, monitor your INR and have regular check-ups with your physician.2

Experiencing a DVT can be a serious situation which is why becoming more aware of what DVT is and how to treat it can be so important. If you find you have many of the risk factors, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor about your risk of DVT. They can recommend ways to reduce your risk including quitting smoking, losing weight and getting regular exercise. 

A pulmonary embolism occurs when the blood clot in your leg breaks off and travels to your lung where it can get stuck and block the blood flow.2 If you feel you are having a pulmonary embolism, you will need to get medical assistance right away as the situation can turn fatal.

To read more about the symptoms of a pulmonary embolism, check out our article Symptoms of a Pulmonary Embolism.

References:

  1. Limtanakool, T. March is DVT Awareness Month. Medscape. 2005. Retrieved from the website: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/500747.
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff. Diseases and Conditions: Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). www.mayoclinic.org. July 3, 2014.
  3. Department of Health and Human Services. What is Deep Vein Thrombosis? National, Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. October 28, 2011. Retrieved from the website: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/dvt