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Doc Talk: Blood clots in your legs can be deadly

  • Published Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, at 12:19 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, at 1:30 p.m.

Maintaining good blood circulation in your legs is important for many reasons. One of the major reasons is to avoid developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT). This serious condition can damage the lungs and liver and even cause death. An estimated 60,000 to 100,000 Americans die of DVT every year.

A DVT is a blood clot that develops on the inside wall of a vein in the leg when blood flow is restricted for some reason. The clot can break off and travel through the vein to the lungs, where it creates a blockage called a pulmonary embolism. The blockage restricts breathing, causing symptoms such as shortness of breath, a severe cough and sharp pain in the chest. The embolism can also disrupt the heart’s rhythm. Left untreated, a pulmonary embolism can quickly become fatal. If you experience these symptoms or see someone who does, seek emergency treatment.

Even if the pulmonary embolism is successfully treated, permanent damage to the lungs can result.

It is important to take steps to avoid developing DVT in the leg and to recognize symptoms and take action when they occur.

DVT may occur when someone is sitting for a long period time, such as on an airplane flight. The inactivity, high altitude and dehydration from dry air and lack of fluids contribute to blood pooling in the legs and becoming thick. A blood clot can begin to form and grow larger until it breaks loose.

DVT also is a fairly common complication of surgery, especially after orthopedic surgery, when patients are inactive. For this reason, compression boots that periodically squeeze the legs are placed on patients’ legs after surgery to stimulate circulation. Patients are encouraged to get up and walk as soon as possible and to maintain an exercise regimen based on their ability.

Any other condition or situation that keeps someone bed-ridden or sitting for extended periods of time also places him or her at risk for DVT. Additional causes can be injuries to the legs, especially crush injuries, and illnesses such as cancer that can thicken the blood.

DVT can occur in anyone, but is more common in the elderly. Getting adequate exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight help lower the risk.

What are the signs that a DVT is developing? A clot can occur anywhere in the leg, from the groin down. Because the clot restricts blood flow, swelling and pain occur in the leg below the clot. Elevating the leg and walking can help reduce symptoms, but the clot remains. If you experience these symptoms, call your doctor. A Doppler ultrasound – a painless type of examination – can detect the DVT. The usual treatment is medication to dissolve the clot.

Someone who has had a previous DVT is at higher risk of having another, due to damage to valves in the veins. Called postphlebitic syndrome, this condition is treated by taking diuretic medications, avoiding salt intake and wearing compression socks. High-risk individuals also may take blood-thinning medications, such as Warfarin, to prevent recurrence.

New medications now on the market are easier to take than Warfarin, which requires frequent blood tests to determine the correct dosage and can interact with other medications. The new medications, called novel oral anticoagulants, or NOACs, do not require special tests, and a standard dosage is taken once or twice daily.

If you have concerns about DVT, talk with your doctor and be sure to maintain good blood circulation.

James Smith is a vascular specialist with the Kansas Physicians Group, 2600 N. Woodlawn. He may be reached at 316-260-1690.

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