Blood clots can be serious; keep moving
Q: A friend was just diagnosed with a blood clot in the lung. She is very healthy. What can I do to prevent this from happening to me?
A: It sounds like your friend had a pulmonary embolism. Most blood clots in the lung start with a blood clot that forms in a leg vein, known as a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Part of the clot can break off and travel to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.
Preventing a DVT is the best way to avoid a pulmonary embolism, a serious, life-threatening condition.
If blood in the deep leg veins doesn’t move fast enough, or if you’re prone to blood clots, a DVT can develop.
Common blood clot triggers include:
- being bedridden for long periods because of surgery or illness
- sitting for long periods — even three to four hours — in a car, plane or train
- getting too little activity and sitting too much
- taking a medication that promotes blood clotting
Your risk for blood clots also increases with older age, a family history of DVT, a previous DVT, cancer, certain genes, COVID-19, heart failure, obesity, pregnancy, and use of birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy.
Here are ways to help prevent getting a clot when you’re stuck in situations that increase your risk, such as a long car ride:
- Stay hydrated. Avoid excessive alcohol intake, and drink lots of water.
- Stretch your legs. Get up every hour or two and stretch your calves or move your ankles back and forth repeatedly. The calf muscles act like pumps and propel blood through the veins.
- Move your legs while you’re lying down. Bend your knees, or point and flex your feet.
- Wear compression stockings. They’ll help prevent swelling, and keep blood from pooling in the legs.
- Pay attention to your position. Avoid crossing your legs, and periodically change your position while seated.
- Get an aisle seat when traveling. On a plane, train or bus, sit in an aisle seat so you can easily get up and move around every few hours.
If you worry that you may have a DVT, call your doctor for medical advice or go to urgent care. The usual symptoms include swelling (edema) in just one leg, leg pain, and a sensation of heaviness in the leg, particularly when you’ve been standing.
If you also have shortness of breath or chest pain, go to the emergency department immediately to get an evaluation for a possible pulmonary embolism.
Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, see health.harvard.edu.
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