Deep Vein Thrombosis: A Hidden Killer

The majority of the blood that is carried around inside our body transits along the network we refer to as “deep veins.” These pathways are far below the skin—as opposed to the superficial veins that are nearer the surface of the skin. Getting a clot – a thrombosis – in one of those deep veins is serious business. The clot that forms in a deep vein can break off and travel to your lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism – a life-threatening complication.

A deep vein thrombosis (DVT) will usually form in one of your legs. It is possible the thrombosis will cause your leg to swell, but that is not a guaranteed symptom. You will likely feel a pain, however. It will often start in your calf, and will feel like cramping or a soreness. It is also possible to have a deep vein thrombosis and be without any symptom at all.

The most common cause of DVT is a long period of relative immobility, such as following surgery. However, marathon runners and other endurance athletes are also prime DVT candidates, as are smokers, suffers of inflammatory bowel diseases, pregnant women, and the obese. Also, oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy both can increase your blood's likelihood of clotting.

Due to the risk of a pulmonary embolism, if you believe you may have symptoms of DVT, see your doctor immediately. Your doctor will give you a physical examination, and may also prescribe an ultrasound test. Since most everyone who develops a DVT has an elevated blood level of a clot-dissolving substance called D dimer, a blood test is also often useful in the diagnosis. A computerized tomography scan and magnetic resonance imaging can also show if you have a clot.

Treatment for DVT usually includes blood thinners that do just what they sound like they do. Although they cannot break up an existing blood clot, they will decrease your body's ability to clot any further.

The blood clots can be broken up by way of medications known as thrombolytics, which are administered through an intravenous line or via a catheter. These are usually meds of last resort, as they can cause serious bleeding and may only be given within the intensive care ward of a hospital.

If other health circumstances prevent you from taking blood-thinning meds, your doctor may treat your DVT by inserting a filter into the vena cava within your abdomen. This filter will prevent clots that break loose from showing up in your lungs.