Deep Vein Thrombosis

What is deep vein thrombosis?

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot that forms in a deep-lying vein, usually in the legs. A blood clot in a deep vein may break loose and travel through your bloodstream. If the clot blocks an artery in your brain, it can cause a stroke. A blood clot that travels to your lungs can cause life-threatening problems.

What is the cause?

DVT may happen when your blood moves slower than normal through the deep veins in your body, usually in your legs. Your blood may move slowly if you are bedridden after surgery or because of a serious illness, or if you sit still for a long time, such as during a long plane flight. Blood clots are more likely to form after an injury, during a major illness, or if you take certain medicines, such as birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy.

Your risk of having DVT increases if you have some conditions, including:

  • Being unable to walk
  • A stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Varicose veins
  • Some cancers
  • Pregnancy
  • Obesity (having too much body fat)
  • Blood clotting disorders that you are born with, such as sickle cell disease
  • Infections

Smoking cigarettes also increases the risk you will have a blood clot.

What are the symptoms?

You may have no symptoms until a clot blocks a major vein. When DVT blocks blood flow, symptoms may include:

  • Swelling, warmth, and pain
  • Red or bluish areas on the skin

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • IPG (impedance plethysmogram), which uses a pressure cuff on your arm or leg to measure blood flow in the veins of the arm or leg
  • Ultrasound, which uses sound waves to show pictures of the veins in your arm or leg
  • A contrast venogram, which uses X-rays and a dye injected into a vein to show any blockages in your veins
  • CT scan or MRI scan, which use X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the veins

How is it treated?

DVT is treated with anticoagulant medicines. These medicines are sometimes called blood thinners. They don’t thin the blood, but they do decrease your blood’s ability to clot. They are used to prevent a clot from getting bigger and to prevent new clots. You may start your treatment at the hospital. When you go home, you will keep taking a blood thinner. There are 3 ways you will get blood thinning medicine: you may learn how to give yourself shots of your medicine, a home health nurse may visit to give you the medicine, or you may be switched to medicine that you can take by mouth.

Depending on what type of blood thinner medicine you take, you may need to have regular blood tests as long as you take the blood thinner. You may need to take a blood thinner for at least 6 months. If you have a condition that keeps you at high risk for blood clots, you may need to take a blood thinner for the rest of your life.

Some types of physical activity may increase your risk for more blood clots once you start treatment. Your healthcare provider tell you what kinds of physical activity or physical therapy are safe for you.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • Be sure to take the right amount of medicine at the right time each day.
  • Keep appointments for regular blood tests to check how well your blood clots.
  • Tell all of your other healthcare providers, such as dentists or podiatrists, that you are taking a blood thinner. Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace that lists the drugs you take.
  • Before taking any new medicines, even nonprescription drugs, contact your healthcare provider. Most medicines, including some antibiotics, can change the effects of blood thinners. You can also ask your pharmacist about possible interactions if you get all your medicines at the same pharmacy.
  • Don’t take aspirin unless your provider tells you to do so.
  • If you are currently being treated for DVT, do not massage your legs. Massage could cause the clot to break loose.

Ask your provider:

  • If you need follow up blood tests and how often you need to have them
  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

If you have been diagnosed with DVT and you suddenly have shortness of breath or chest pain, or you cough up blood, the clot may have broken loose and moved to your lungs. Call 911 or your local emergency service right away. This can be a life-threatening emergency.

How can I help prevent deep vein thrombosis?

You can help prevent DVT if you:

  • Keep your legs raised when you are in bed or sitting down. Keeping your legs up helps the return of blood from the leg veins.
  • Avoid sitting or standing for long periods of time. When you are traveling, move your feet and legs often. Go for short walks if possible.
  • Avoid crossing your legs and ankles when you sit.
  • Exercise as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Avoid wearing control-top pantyhose, leg garters, and other tight-fitting garments.
  • Keep a healthy weight. If you are overweight, try to lose some weight.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking increases the risk for blood clots.
  • Ask your provider if support hose or special stockings would be helpful for you help prevent clots. If so, make sure you know how to wear them correctly.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-09-02
Last reviewed: 2014-09-04
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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