Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a serious medical condition in which a blood clot forms in one of your body’s deep veins. A blood clot (thrombus) is when a clump of blood changes from a liquid to a semi-solid or gel-like state. DVT occurs most commonly in the legs, though it can occur elsewhere in the body.
Your arms and legs have both superficial and deep veins. When a clot forms in a deep vein, it's a serious medical condition. That’s because a piece of the clot may break off and travel to the lungs, causing a medical emergency.
What are the signs and symptoms of deep vein thrombosis (DVT)?
DVT can occur without noticeable symptoms. Those that do experience symptoms may experience:
- Pain or cramping in the leg, usually starting at the calf
- Swelling in the leg
- Warmth in the affected area
- Red or blue skin discoloration
Many people are unaware they have a DVT until it breaks off and reaches the lungs. This is known as a Pulmonary Embolism (PE), and it’s a life-threatening emergency. Signs of a PE can include shortness of breath, chest pain that gets worse with deep breathing, coughing up blood, and rapid heart rate. If you suffer from any of those symptoms, seek emergency medical treatment immediately.
What Causes DVT?
DVT can be caused by anything that prevents your blood from circulating or clotting correctly. The most common causes include:
- Immobility. Long periods of sitting or immobility are one of the main causes of DVT. This can include bed rest due to illness or surgery, long trips in a car or airplane, or injury to the leg that keeps it immobile.
- Medication. Certain medications like birth control, estrogen supplements, and hormone replacement therapy can cause DVT.
- Injury to a vein. Veins can be injured through trauma (such as a broken bone) or surgery.
- Inherited blood disorders. Some families are predisposed to blood disorders that cause the blood to clot easily or frequently, a condition known as hypercoagulation.
Some individuals are more likely to suffer from deep vein thrombosis than others. Common risk factors include:
- Certain cancers
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Family history or genetic predisposition to blood clots
- Heart disease
How is Deep Vein Thrombosis Treated?
To diagnose DVT, your doctor will take a family history, do a physical exam, and conduct one or more diagnostic tests. Those may include an ultrasound, D-dimer blood test, or venography.
If you are diagnosed with DVT, your doctor will work with you to determine the best course of treatment. Common treatment options include:
Blood thinners. The most common treatment for DVT is oral or intravenous blood thinners. They cannot dissolve an existing clot, but they can keep it from growing or breaking as well as keep new clots from forming.
Clot Busters. If blood thinners don’t work, or your clot is dangerously large, your doctor may choose a more aggressive medication known as a clot-buster, or thrombolytic. These medications are inserted intravenously or through a catheter directly into the clot. They carry a severe risk of stroke and bleeding and are often reserved for more serious cases of DVT.
A Vena Cava Filter. If your clot doesn’t respond well to medication, a filter may be surgically placed into the large vena cava vein in your abdomen. This filter prevents clots that break off from reaching the lungs and causing a pulmonary embolism.
Thrombectomy. In rare cases, your doctor may need to surgically remove the clot in a procedure known as a thrombectomy.
Once your DVT is under control, there are lifestyle changes that will help prevent a future clot. Those include exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, stop smoking, and avoiding periods of prolonged immobility.
If you have further questions or are at risk for developing DVT, Vascular Associates of South Alabama can help! Our team of board-certified vascular surgeons will work with you to develop a treatment plan that takes control of your DVT and vascular health. Contact us today!