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Deep Vein Thrombosis: A Silent Heart Killer

infographic comparing healthy veins and veins with deep vein thrombosis

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) has gained prominence in recent years as the ‘economy-class syndrome’ due to how it can affect travellers on long-haul flights, especially those seated in the economy class cabin. Many people associate it with sudden death, but not many people know how DVT works, or that DVT is not merely limited to long-haul travellers.

Deep vein thrombosis is the formation of blood clots within the deep veins, predominantly in the lower limb. The biggest danger of DVT is when the blood clot travels through the veins and arteries, where it may lodge in the coronary arteries leading to the heart and lungs, blocking off blood flow and resulting in a heart attack or sudden cardiac death. At this stage, the death rate is around 26%.

Clots can form in the deep vein after a person remains immobile for a long time. This is most commonly seen among those who are bedridden or on long-haul flights. Clots can also be caused when the blood is thicker than normal due to illness, dehydration, lack of fitness, high cholesterol and sugar levels in the blood, or as a result of certain medications.

The following factors can increase your risk of DVT:

  • Above 40 years old
  • Recovering from surgery
  • Obesity
  • Long periods of immobility (sitting at the desk for long periods of time, or long-haul flights)
  • Injuries that affect the veins in the lower limbs
  • Pregnancy
  • Varicose veins
  • History of malignancy
  • Hormone replacement therapy

The symptoms of DVT varies from patient to patient but there is generally swelling, pain, warmth, and visible, dilated veins in the calf or sometimes in the thigh. Some patients also have a mild fever but up to 50% of patients with DVT may not have any symptoms at all.

DVT is diagnosed with a combination of clinical judgement, blood testing and ultrasound. A comprehensive health screening can help diagnose DVT, especially for those who do not experience any symptoms. For those who have the risk factors, an ultrasound scan of the deep veins is usually able to determine if there is DVT.

DVT can be treated in many ways. Anti-coagulation medication can be used to thin the blood and dissolve existing clots. When this is not suitable, specially thin and flexible tubes called catheters can be inserted into the veins to remove the clots. Compression stockings can also help to drain excess fluid upwards, and reduce lower limb swelling and the growth of clots in the deep veins.

DVT is a preventable medical condition that is unfortunately, often under-diagnosed. However, it can be serious or even fatal in some cases, so it is vital for people to learn how to prevent DVT and recognise it early. If diagnosed early, DVT is very treatable and safe.

Pregnant women are 5 times more likely to contract DVT because their blood is more coagulable. Pregnant women who are worried about DVT can wear compression stockings, particularly during the third trimester.

In general, walking can help prevent DVT because calf muscle contractions compress the veins and pumps blood up towards the heart. Those who regularly take long-haul flights or have to stay seated for long periods of time during work or leisure can use compression stockings and drink plenty of water throughout. Additionally, they should try to take short walks regularly, especially when on a flight.

Take charge of heart health today. Make an appointment for a Heart Screening with Specialist Consultation at Gleneagles Hospital. To learn more, please visit our heart specialists or call the Gleneagles Patient Assistance Centre 24-hour Hotline at (65) 6575 7575.