Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Blood clots are common – and deadly

March is Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) Awareness month. What is DVT?

DVT is a blood clot that commonly forms in the legs and blocks blood flow through the veins. Most people who develop a DVT experience swelling, redness, and discomfort in the affected leg.

When recognized and treated promptly, a DVT is unlikely to lead to serious complications.

However, only about half of people who get a DVT will have symptoms. If unrecognized and untreated, a DVT can lead to the formation of a pulmonary embolism (PE) which is a blood clot in the lungs. This can be deadly.

Together, DVT/PE kills more Americans each year than breast cancer, AIDS and automobile accidents combined.

Prevention is the key. With up to half of all DVT/PE’s being “silent” (no symptoms) with possible lethal consequences, it’s imperative to prevent them from occurring.

The best way to prevent a DVT/PE from occurring is to know your risk factors and speak to your doctor about them.

The majority of DVTs occur either during a hospitalization or within a few weeks after one, therefore discussing this issue with your medical team when you are admitted to the hospital is of great importance.

Do you or family members have a previous history of DVT or thrombosis? Do you smoke or take birth control pills? Will you be undergoing any surgical procedures? Will you be confined to the hospital bed? Do you have heart failure or respiratory failure?
These questions will help your doctor to determine what, if any, preventative measures need to be taken to protect you from developing a DVT/PE.

Patients at a relatively low risk may simply need special anti-embolic stockings or orders to walk around and stay active. Patients with a higher risk will need medications called anticoagulants (coagulation is the process of forming a blood clot).

Today we have numerous anticoagulant drugs available that are very effective at preventing and treating DVT/PE with more available in the near future.

Being discharged from the hospital does not end your risk. Patients with a high risk may need to continue taking anticoagulant drugs for up to a month after leaving the hospital.

Regardless of whether you need medications or not, it is important that once you leave the hospital you do not spend too much time sitting around. Being active is a great way to not only reduce your risk of developing a DVT, but also improve many aspects of your health –and it’s free.

Long car or plane rides should also be postponed shortly after a hospitalization. If a trip cannot be delayed, be sure to speak to your doctor about what you can do to minimize your risk.

DVT Awareness Month may only be in March, but you can protect yourself all year by knowing which risk factors you have and talking about this issue with your doctor. If the doctor does prescribe you anticoagulant medications, make sure to follow the directions exactly. Although they are quite safe when used properly, they can have severe effects when errors occur.

Do not hesitate to speak up if you feel you are at risk or are experiencing any signs and symptoms that concern you. Internet sources such as www.preventdvt.org and www.cdc.gov/Features/Thrombosis are filled with information that will keep you updated about this preventable, yet too often occurring disease.

Michael Smith is a pharmacist and Clinical Coordinator in the Department of Pharmacy Services at The William W. Backus Hospital. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. If you want to comment on this column or others, go to the Healthy Living blog at backushospital.org or e-mail Smith and all of the Healthy Living columnists at healthyliving@wwbh.org.

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