March is Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), 300,000-600,000 people are affected by DVT or pulmonary embolism (PE) in the United States every year. Fatal pulmonary emboli cause more deaths than breast cancer and AIDS combined.
Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) is a blockage that forms in a deep vein of the body. Deep vein clots typically start in the lower leg or thigh, but may also occur in other parts of the body. They differ from superficial vein clots by their propensity to break off and travel with the blood to the lungs, which may sometimes cause a fatal event. Why is that? New blood clots are like jelly – they thicken and clump, they can break apart and travel through your bloodstream. These loose clots may travel to arteries in your lungs and block blood flow, preventing normal circulation. That is life-threatening.
How does DVT cause a pulmonary embolism?
Pulmonary embolism is very serious, life-threatening, and damage-causing. It is when the loose clot (called an “embolus”) travels, mostly to the lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, pain with deep breathing, coughing up blood, and pleurisy (which feels like pneumonia). Sometimes you can have no symptoms and simply pass out, or die due to lack of blood circulation. Some people may remember David Bloom, the CNN reporter covering the war in Iraq. He died suddenly after a few days of sore calf in 2003 after DVT became a pulmonary embolism.
Who is at risk for DVT?
- Adults who are 45 years old and over are at increased risk. The incidence of DVT or PE is 1 in 10,000 for people in their 20s. It is 5 in 1,000 for people in their 60s or 70s.
- Surgery patients. This is due to tissue injury and lack of mobility after surgery, which may cause clotting. Surgery patients frequently take blood thinners to prevent clots.
- People who travel a lot. If you are on a plane for more than 4 hours and do not move, you are putting yourself at risk.
- People with a family history of “Factor V Leiden,” a mutation in the gene that creates Factor V, a protein in the blood that is required for normal clotting. There are other types of clotting propensities that run in families.
- People who have already had DVT or PE are also at increased risk.
- Women who are taking oral contraceptives, or who are pregnant.
What is the treatment for DVT?
Blood thinners. Warfarin (or Coumadin) and heparin have been available for many years. Within the last 20 years, we have witnessed the arrival of more than ten different types of anticoagulants than can be tailored to the individual patient’s needs. There are even special blood thinners for the 1 percent of patients who become allergic to heparin (which can in turn cause blood clots).
Learn more about the Thrombosis and Hemostasis Program at The University of Vermont Medical Center.