Learn ways to protect yourself from deep vein thrombosis, a potentially deadly condition that’s not easily detected.

Despite estimates ranging from 300,000 to 600,000 Americans who suffer from deep vein thrombosis (DVT), it remains a frequently underdiagnosed condition with serious consequences. DVT occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein, such as in the thigh, pelvis or lower leg, and causes partial or total obstruction of blood flow.

This condition can prove fatal if the clot detaches, travels to the lungs and blocks blood flow in the vessels of the lungs, an event known as pulmonary embolism (PE). The Surgeon General estimates that 100,000 to 180,000 deaths per year are due to PE. Survivors of DVT and PE may suffer from acute inflammation, which can lead to poor quality of life, loss of work and low productivity. A current study from the American Heart Association estimates the total economic burden of illness associated with DVT and PE to reach between $5-8 billion annually an average of $20,000 per treated patient per year. The good news? These conditions are entirely preventable.

Risk factors and symptoms

Predisposing factors for DVT include diabetes, obesity and advanced age; it is most common in adults over age 40, but can occur in any age group. In women, the first 12 weeks after giving birth is a particularly high-risk period for forming blood clots. Prolonged periods of inactivity, including hospitalization; smoking; lengthy air or car travel; and oral estrogen-based contraceptives are common DVT triggers. If the flow of blood in a vein slows or the vessel is damaged, a clot can be formed.

Typical symptoms of DVT include acute pain in the calf, swelling, discoloration and warmth. Your doctor will look to these symptoms for diagnosis, in conjunction with a physical examination and imaging tests (ultrasound, venography and MRI).

Prevention and treatment

Many patients can prevent DVT through lifestyle changes such as becoming more active, exercising regularly, avoiding prolonged periods of bed rest, not staying in the same position in bed and increasing consumption of fluids. During a flight or on long car drives, getting up and walking frequently, along with flexing and pointing your toes, are common measures we all can take to prevent DVT. Controlling obesity, diabetes and smoking can also minimize the risk of DVT.

Treatment options include graduated vascular elastic compression stockings, which work well for many patients and are available at most pharmacies. Pneumatic compression boots are beneficial for patients hospitalized or confined to home. A daily self-injection of a low fixed dose of blood thinners heparin or fondaparinux is efficient and safe in patients from high-risk groups. For patients undergoing surgery, oral administration of warfarin is common. Baby aspirin may be administered daily for some patients.

Resources are available for DVT sufferers at North American Thrombosis Forum (natfonline.org), which is an organization dedicated to educating patients on prevention and treatment of DVT and PE. Educational programs, a risk assessment tool and a directory of support groups are available, in conjunction with local NATF groups in individual cities.

While DVT is a very serious condition that can strike at any age, the important message is that it can be prevented in many people. Awareness and advocacy are the most effective tools to lessen the impact of this condition.

Atul Laddu, M.D., PhD, FACC, is a member of NATF and the Georgia Group of Volunteers. Laddu previously served as Vice President of CV Therapeutics, Inc., in Palo Alto, California. Along with conducting clinical research in various therapeutic areas, he has taught medical, dental and graduate students, has a passion for community work, and has dedicated himself to helping community members.