The Ultimate Guide to DVT Prevention: Compression Therapy Tips, Diet Advice & More
Deep vein thrombosis — often just abbreviated as DVT — is a potentially serious condition that happens when a blood clot forms in the deep veins of the arms or legs. It’s estimated that as many as 900,000 Americans may have DVT, and not all of them might know it, as symptoms can be nonexistent or difficult to spot.
In this article, we explain what DVT and its risk factors are, then dive into preventative strategies you can pursue to reduce your chances of developing DVT in the first place.
Symptoms of DVT
Deep vein thrombosis occurs when a blood clot forms in the deep veins of the body, usually in the lower legs or thighs. Symptoms to watch out for include swelling in the affected leg — only rarely is there swelling in both legs — pain that may feel like cramping or soreness especially in the calf area, red or discolored skin and a warm feeling in the affected area. However, deep vein thrombosis may occur without any noticeable symptoms at all due to the internal location of the vein, which is why preventing this condition is so critical.
If the deep vein thrombosis — aka the clot — breaks off and travels to the lungs, it may block off the pulmonary artery, resulting in a pulmonary embolism, which can be fatal, especially if the clot is large or there are multiple clots. Even if it’s not fatal, a pulmonary embolism may result in low oxygen levels in the blood, permanent damage to the lungs or damage to other organs due to the lack of oxygen. Signs of a pulmonary embolism include:
- Sudden shortness of breath
- Rapid pulse
- Coughing up blood
- Fainting or feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Chest pain or discomfort that get worse during deep breathing or coughing
Even if your DVT does not progress to become a pulmonary embolism, over time it may result in another condition called post-thrombotic syndrome (PTS). This condition occurs when the walls and veins of blood vessels are damaged by the clot, which may cause blood to flow the wrong way and vein pressure to build up. More than one third of people with DVT go on to develop PTS. Symptoms of PTS include aching, swelling, pain, heaviness, itchiness, tingling, cramps and ulcers or sores on the legs. Progressing to PTS is yet another reason it is so important to prevent a deep vein thrombosis from forming.
If you believe you are experiencing Deep Vein Thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism, you should seek out medical attention immediately. If you already have symptoms of DVT or PTS, contact your doctor to learn how you can keep it from progressing to a pulmonary embolism.
Causes and Risk Factors
Anything that prevents your blood from circulating or clotting normally may cause a deep vein thrombosis to develop. Multiple risk factors are also involved in DVT — and the more risk factors you have, the greater your chances of developing the condition. Some of the most common risk factors are:
Surgery or Injury
Anything that affects how blood flows through your veins can increase your risk of deep vein thrombosis, and both surgery and injury may do this. In particular, the following surgeries have a high risk for DVT due to the location or invasive nature of the procedure:
- Knee replacement
- Hip replacement
- Peripheral or coronary artery bypass
- Abdominal surgery
- Any other major operations
Your body’s natural healing response will prompt blood to clot after surgery. However, if your blood clots too much or if you must stay on bed rest, this can cause a deep vein thrombosis to form. Wearing a cast that limits your mobility can also increase your risk of DVT. Usually the chance of developing DVT is highest in the three months after surgery and declines thereafter. If you have a major procedure coming up, talk to your doctor about how you can recover while still reducing your risk of DVT.
Cancer and its treatment may affect the flow of blood in many ways. The cancer itself may make blood clot more easily, or the tumor may inhibit blood flow by pressing directly on a vein. Cancer removal surgery may increase your risk for DVT for the reasons outlined above. The placement of a central venous catheter — i.e. inserting a tube directly into a vein to deliver chemotherapy or medicine — can also add to your risk factors.
Other Medical Conditions
Other medical conditions that may also increase your risk of DVT include:
- Spinal cord injury
- Broken hip or leg bone
- Heart conditions (i.e. heart attack or congestive heart failure)
- Varicose veins
- Sickle cell disease
Pregnancy and Birth
Carrying a baby puts increased pressure on the veins in your pelvis and legs, which increases your risk of DVT during pregnancy. Hormonal changes due to pregnancy may also affect the way the blood clots. Some women are put on bed rest during pregnancy, and this lack of movement also increases the risk. (Keep reading for more information on why.) Giving birth can also damage blood vessels and change the way blood flows through the veins, which is why DVT risk is also elevated for six weeks after giving birth.
Birth control pills — aka oral contraceptives — and hormone replacement therapy both increase your blood’s ability to clot. Similar to surgery, the risk is usually the highest in the first few months after you begin taking the medication, and it decreases with time. However, DVT may still occur even after the initial three-month period is over, especially if you have additional risk factors.
Being overweight or obese increases pressure in your veins and legs, which can in turn lead to impaired circulation and increased clotting.
Smoking negatively affects your body, including your circulatory system, in many ways. Increased risk of clotting is just one of its many effects.
Lack of Movement
Not moving for long periods of time slows the flow of blood, which can create a low-oxygen environment that makes it easier for clots to form. It may also trap blood in places such as the veins in the legs where they have more difficulty breaking up. Prolonged bed rest and paralysis can both result in DVT, as can long flights or other forms of travels where you must stay seated for multiple hours at a time.
Family History and Genetics
As with many other medical conditions, you are more likely to develop DVT if you have a relative who has had a deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism. Inheriting a blood clotting disorder that makes your blood clot more easily may also be a risk factor. For example, Factor V Leiden is the most common known genetic risk factor for clots.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “Factor V Leiden is an inherited blood-clotting disorder caused by a mutation of Factor V, which is a protein in the blood that is necessary for blood to clot properly. Usually, the activity of Factor V in your blood drops off when clotting is no longer needed. With Factor V Leiden, that decline happens much slower than usual. Meanwhile, the blood is continuing to clot.” Knowing your family’s medical history can help you determine if there are risk factors present such as Factor V Leiden.
Certain groups are more likely to develop DVT than others. DVT may occur at any age, though after age 40, the risk almost doubles every 10 years. Younger women are more likely to develop DVT than men of the same age, likely due to pregnancy and other birth-related reasons as outlined earlier. However, after menopause, women’s risk of DVT drops until it is lower than men’s. Some studies have also indicated that the chances of developing DVT may vary by race and ethnicity. Looking at the U.S. population, DVT is more common among African Americans, while Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have lower rates. This indicates that certain genetic factors that influence risk for DVT are more common among certain groups.
No matter what your risk factors, there are still habits you can build and lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of a deep vein thrombosis. If you’re at risk, here are eight prevention strategies to follow, from compression therapy to exercise.
Wear compression hosiery.
The benefits of compression socks are many. They promote better circulation, reduce swelling and help your legs feel more energized. Specifically, compression stockings for DVT can reduce your risk of clotting by encouraging your blood to keep flowing. Compression gear achieves this effect through a specially woven fabric that provides graduated pressure, forcing the blood to keep moving rather than pool in the veins in your legs.
Manage your weight.
Being overweight or obese can be a risk factor for DVT and losing that excess weight will help take some of the pressure off the veins in your lower body. While there are many fad diets out there, at its core losing weight is about burning more calories than you take in, so focus on portion control and nutrient-dense foods that are relatively low in calories, such as lean meats, whole grains and produce.
Exercising can’t make up for a totally sedentary lifestyle. But you should still take quick walking breaks during the day because working out is an important component of preventing DVT. Exercise reduces your risk of clotting in several ways. First, the physical movement and the pumping of your muscles directly stimulates circulation. Cardiovascular exercise also strengthens your heart, which will then not have to work as hard to pump the same volume of blood at the same frequency.
We named smoking as a risk factor earlier, so it makes sense that quitting smoking will lower your risk of DVT — not to mention improving your health in many other ways as well. Talk to your doctor to learn about resources for quitting, and if you know anyone who has successfully quit, you can also reach out to them for advice.
When you’re on the road, it’s best to get up every hour or two and get moving for a few minutes. If you’re driving, make a pit stop to get gas or use the restroom. If you’re on a long plane flight, use the bathroom or take a lap around the cabin when it’s safe to do so. Wearing compression socks while you travel is also an excellent idea, as the compression therapy will encourage your blood to keep flowing strongly even when you can’t move around as much as normal.
Drink plenty of water.
If you’re dehydrated, your blood can actually become more viscous or thicker as your body tries to compensate for the lack of water. To keep this from happening, drink water, herbal tea and other healthy fluids that will keep you hydrated. Watch out for caffeine, alcohol and other beverages that have a dehydrating effect.
Avoid tight-fitting clothes.
Tight clothes that cut into your skin aren’t just uncomfortable; they can also impede your circulation and increase your risk of clots. It can be tempting to buy a smaller size than we actually wear for vanity’s sake, but you’ll be much healthier and more comfortable if you buy clothes that don’t restrict your movement in any way. Also look for loose cuts and breathable fabrics that will allow you to move freely.
Talk to your doctor about risk factors.
If you have several of the risk factors listed earlier — you’re taking birth control medication and you have a family history of blood clotting problems, for example — talk to your doctor about your concerns and ways you can manage your chances of developing DVT. Your doctor will likely suggest a combination of the lifestyle factors listed here, and they may also prescribe blood thinners — also known as anticoagulants — to keep your blood from clotting so quickly.
These prevention tips can keep DVT from escalating into a more serious condition — or from developing altogether. If you’re at risk for DVT, don’t wait to start taking preventive steps. Try one or more of these strategies today, and get your doctor involved if you’re exhibiting symptoms.