Each year, millions of people around the world take flights on long distances, and those which require more than four hours of travel may actually be at risk of developing blood clots, medically known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). So what is DVT and what can you do while travelling on airplanes to reduce your risk of it?
DVT can potentially be life threatening. It occurs when a blood clot forms “deep” in the veins, usually in the legs. These clots can be extremely fatal. If one were to break off, it could travel to the lungs via the bloodstream and cause a condition called a pulmonary embolism (PE). This happens when the blood clot blocks an artery in the lungs.
So what happens in DVT and how can it lead to an embolism?
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), whenever anyone travels for long hours (usually said to be four hours or more), and is immobile for a long period as a result, this may lead to formation of a blood clot.
Such a clot develops deep in the venous system of the body, and usually develops in the legs as a result of being inactive for several hours at a stretch. If the clot breaks off, it can travel to the lungs and block an artery, which may result in a pulmonary embolism. This can be an extremely life threatening condition.
The American Society of Hematology has noted that certain individuals are at a higher risk of developing a blood clot when traveling, more than others. Pregnant women, diabetic individuals, those with high blood pressure (hypertension), individuals over the age of 60, and those with a family history of blood clots or a previous history of having had a blood clot, are all cited on the list of those at risk. In addition, any person who has had recent surgery may also be at a higher risk of developing DVT.
Understanding blood circulation and its role in DVT
The human body is largely made up of two types of blood systems: arterial and venous. The arterial system, comprises arteries which are the vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to different parts of the body. The venous system is made up of veins that carry blood which is low in oxygen from the body back to the lungs.
In DVT, the veins located deep in the venous system are affected. Sitting for long periods of time, remaining inactive and immobile will cause possible clotting of the blood due to changes in the way normal blood viscosity is maintained.
However, there are certain steps you can take to prevent the onset of a blood clot and reduce your chances of developing DVT. These steps are especially useful to those who are already at risk of developing blood clots and DVT.
If someone has been identified to be at a high risk of developing DVT, the doctor may recommend certain treatment or medication prior to travelling. This may include a blood thinner tablet or injection, as they deem appropriate. If you are able to book an aisle seat or one with extra leg room, this will also be helpful, as stretching your legs out will reduce the risk of developing DVT.
It has also been found to be extremely helpful to walk around during the flight and keep the blood circulation flowing.
Wearing loose fitting clothing has also been found to prevent DVT.
Those who are known to be at a slightly higher risk for DVT may also use compression stockings while travelling.
What are some signs of DVT or PE that you should be aware of?
The most common symptoms of DVT are swelling in the ankle or legs, which usually starts out on one side. A muscle cramp-like pain may be felt in the calf muscle area.
If someone has already developed a pulmonary embolism, they will most likely feel dizzy all of a sudden and may also have change in normal breathing patterns. Coughing up blood and a sudden increase in the heart rate may also be seen.
Studies have found evidence that upto 48 hours after flying, an individual may still be at the risk of developing DVT. In order to reduce the risk of developing such complications, individuals should remain active and practice stretching exercises.