We’ve all been there. Whether you’re on your way to a much-needed vacation spot or a simple business trip, the desire to simply sit back and relax for your flight’s duration is too tempting to ignore. Personally, I’m guilty of doing just that. I’ve traveled on short, one and a half hour flights to 12 hour flights that seem like a lifetime. Each instance is the same: I smile at flight attendants and mothers shuffling their children down the aisles, in which I don’t move an inch.
But I and millions of others are at a higher risk of developing Deep Vein Thrombosis— all due to the danger of prolonged inactivity and stillness.
According to a study on air travel and the risk of thromboembolism, more than 300 million people travel on long-distance flights of more than four hours each year (1). Unfortunately, an average of 1 passenger in 6,000 will suffer from Deep Vein Thrombosis after a long-haul flight (2).
What is Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)?
DVT is the formation of a blood clot (thrombus) in a deep vein. A thrombus is a clump of blood in a gelatinous, solid state. DVT most commonly develops in the thighs and legs.
What are the causes of DVT?
Sitting for prolonged periods of time: the most common cause of DVT in air travelers is lengthy inactivity. Sitting down for a long time allows for the muscles in the legs to relax. It sounds soothing, but in actuality, this makes it difficult for your blood to circulate– increasing your risk for DVT.
Some passengers may have other risk factors that increase chances for DVT in addition to prolonged inactivity (4), such as age. DVT can strike anyone, but being 60 years of age or older increases your risk. Genetics play a large part as well, as some people may have inherited blood conditions that cause their blood to be thick, therefore facilitating blood clotting. Carrying a baby adds pressure to the veins of the pelvis and legs. Pregnant women can experience a blood clot up to 6 weeks after giving birth. Being overweight adds pressure to the veins of the pelvis and legs as well, and smoking makes blood cells more adherent, facilitating blood clot formation.
What are the symptoms of DVT?
Common symptoms of DVT include pain (a cramp-like feeling), reddish skin, and warmth in the leg. An important fact to know is that not everyone shows symptoms. You may not know that you have DVT, but read on to learn about its effects and how to help prevent it from happening.
What are the effects of DVT?
Sometimes, DVT can dissolve naturally. However, the clot is likely to have caused permanent damage to the veins, and the risk for DVT recurring is increased. According to the National Blood Clot Alliance, 5 to 30 percent of individuals who experience DVT develop a second or recurrent DVT within five years of the first episode (5).
A life-threatening consequence of DVT is Pulmonary Embolism (PE). PE is defined as blockage in a pulmonary artery in the lungs. In most PE cases, it is caused by blood clots that travel to the lung from the legs (DVT). In one of every five DVT cases, PE occurs (5). To understand the differences, view the picture below. My grandfather was hospitalized due to developing Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism after a flight; these conditions are frightening as is, but even more so when a loved one is affected by them.
How can you prevent DVT and possible PE while traveling?
The number one way to prevent DVT development on flights is to simply get up and walk around (when appropriate, of course). Try walking up and down the aisles every half an hour. While walking around is preferred and strongly encouraged, the Mayo Clinic recommends also “raising and lowering your heels while keeping your toes on the floor, then raising your toes with your heels on the floor.” Also, constantly drink water before, during, and after your flight.
Some long-term prevention techniques for DVT are regular exercise and lifestyle changes, including quitting smoking. Individuals confined to wheelchairs may use compression stockings, which are snug, stretchable socks that gently squeeze your legs and aide blood flow. In addition, a doctor may prescribe anticoagulants, which are blood thinners utilized to prevent coagulation of blood (clots).
If one develops DVT and PE, how are they treated?
First and foremost, the suspected DVT and PE patient must seek immediate medical attention. Then, the patient is given a blood test, ultrasound, CT, MRI, and/or a venography exam. These exams allow doctors to view the clot and diagnose the patient.
Once diagnosed by a doctor, treatments include blood thinners, clot busters, and compression stockings. Blood thinners are anticoagulants that won’t break up the existing blood clot, but can prevent them from enlarging. Clot busters are drugs that break clots up quickly, but can also cause serious bleeding and are only used in the severest forms of DVT. Lastly, compression stockings, like previously discussed, are snug, stretchable socks that gently squeeze your leg and aide blood flow.
So, from one enthusiastic traveler to the next, I know that the next time I fly I’m choosing to relax while also minding my health. Traveling is exciting, entertaining, and enlightening, but in order to have a good time, safety and health precautions need to be met. Now that you know what Deep Vein Thrombosis is and its even more dangerous counterpart Pulmonary Embolism, spread the word! Next time you board an airplane, a bus, or a car, be sure to strongly encourage your family and friends around you to stay active! And if you’re really passionate about the issue, inform a flight attendant and even your fellow passengers– they too will be educated and aware of the symptoms.
(1) Gavish, I. Brenner, B. “Air travel and the risk of thromboembolism.” Internal Emergency Medicine. 2011. PubMed. Web. 24 June 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21057984(2) “Immobility, Circulatory Problems and Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT).” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 26 Apr. 2012. Web. 24 June 2018. www.who.int/ith/mode_of_travel/DVT/en/.
(3) “Blood clot in leg vein.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. 6 March 2018. Web. 24 June 2018.
(4) “Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 6 Mar. 2018. Web. 24 June 2018. www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/deep-vein-thrombosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20352557
(5) “What Are the Consequences of DVT?” Stop the Clot, National Blood Clot Alliance. Web. 24 June 2018. www.stoptheclot.org/diagnosis_symptoms/what_are_consequences_dvt.htm
(6) “Deep Vein Thrombosis.” Michigan Vein Care. Michigan Vein Care. Web. 24 June 2018.