Anatomy of a Vein

A vein is a blood vessel that carries blood from the rest of the body back to the heart.

What is a Blood Clot?

When blood changes from its normal liquid form into a solid or semi-solid mass, it is called a blood clot. When you cut your finger, a blood clot forms over the cut to create a scab and stop the bleeding. However, if a blood clot develops inside one of your veins, it can block the normal flow of blood and cause problems.

Why Should You be Concerned about Blood Clots?

If a blood clot develops inside one of the veins, it may block the normal flow of blood from parts of the body. This can result in pain, tenderness and swelling. Most blood clots, after surgery, begin in the veins of the legs.

If a blood clot breaks loose, it can travel through the veins until it reaches the lungs. There, it may cause what is called a pulmonary embolism (lung clot). There, it may cause sharp pain, shortness of breath, coughing up blood or passing out. If the clot is severe enough, it can be life-threatening or fatal.

What is Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)?

The medical term for a blood clot is a thrombus. A thrombus in a vein may block the blood flow through that vein partially or completely.

When a blood clot develops in one of the deep veins, the condition is called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). This is more common in the veins of the legs and pelvis than in other veins.

Risk Factors for Thrombosis

  • surgery (particularly bone surgery such as hip replacement or knee surgery)
  • injury
  • paralysis
  • a previous episode of DVT or PE
  • increasing age
  • cancer
  • heart disease
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • coughing up blood
  • palpitations (rapid heart beat)
  • feeling faint

Signs and Symptoms of DVT

Deep vein thrombosis may not cause symptoms or it may cause symptoms such as:

  • pain in the leg
  • swelling in the leg
  • enlargement of the veins near the skin surface
  • reddish-blue skin colour
  • skin that is warm to the touch
  • heaviness of the arm or leg

Signs and Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolus (PE)

If a DVT travels from the leg to the lung it is known as a pulmonary embolism (PE) and may cause symptoms such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • coughing up blood
  • palpitations (rapid heart beat)
  • feeling faint

Why Should Deep Vein Thrombosis be Treated?

If all or part of a deep vein thrombus breaks loose, it can travel from the leg to the lungs, where it is known as a pulmonary embolus. Pulmonary emboli may produce shortness of breath, chest pain, rapid heart beat, coughing-up blood or fainting. If an embolus is large enough, it can be life threatening or fatal.

Medications that Prevent and Treat Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) or Pulmonary Embolism (PE):

The use of certain medications can lower the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (e.g. if you need to undergo orthopedic surgery).

Anticoagulant drugs (oral or injectable) are sometimes called “blood thinners”. Although they are called “blood thinners”, they do not actually make the blood any thinner than normal. Anticoagulants can prevent the blood from forming clots or stop an existing clot from getting any larger and travelling to the lungs. Over time, the body slowly dissolves the clot.

Heparin is a common anticoagulant drug. New types of heparin, called Low Molecular Weight Heparins (LMWH) have also been developed. Like heparin, these drugs are injected. Normally heparin is only given in a hospital; however LMWHs are often used outside the hospital. LMWH is injected using a preloaded syringe similar in size to an insulin syringe. The drug is injected subcutaneously (under the skin).

Lifestyle Modifications: Reduce Your Risk Factors

As well as taking medications, there are other ways to reduce the risk of developing blood clots or bleeding:

  • Maintain a healthy weight and try to eat a balanced diet.
  • Don’t take any medications – even herbal remedies or vitamin supplements – without checking with your pharmacist or doctor first.
  • When sitting down for a prolonged period of time, rest your feet higher than your hips, if you can.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Don’t have more than two alcoholic drinks per day.

Lifestyle Modifications

Exercise – Exercise, as well as any activity recommended by your doctor, is a good idea after an operation. For example, walking and swimming would help improve your health.

Keep Moving – Remaining inactive after an operation increases the risk of DVT. Try to avoid sitting for long periods of time. If you have to sit for more than a couple of hours, take any opportunity to move around at least once an hour. If you cannot walk around (such as in an airplane or car), do foot exercises such as toe curls and stretch your legs while you are sitting.

Compression Stockings – These stockings are especially developed for people with diseases of the leg veins. They are designed to improve the blood circulation in the leg veins. Physicians often recommend these for people having an operation, because they can help patients avoid DVT.