A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Deep vein thrombosis: a different, deadly clot

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You would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know what a heart attack is. In simple terms, they’re what happens when blood clots block the flow of blood to the heart muscle.

But people may be less aware of another type of blood clot that kills up to 100,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Deep vein thrombosis is a type of clot that forms in a major vein of the leg or less commonly in the arms, pelvis or other large veins in the body.

Less sudden than a heart attack

The symptoms of a deep vein thrombosis don’t usually occur as suddenly as a heart attack, said Kelly Rasmussen, a nurse practitioner in cardiology.

“The main signs and symptoms of a deep vein thrombosis that people need to watch for are swelling in one of the extremities, usually on one side. They may experience redness that feels warm to the touch, and an achy feeling similar to a charley horse or cramp,” she said.

DVT: Easy to diagnose

Rasmussen said a deep vein thrombosis is easily diagnosed by a blood test to look for markers of a clot, followed by an ultrasound scan of the area involved.

A typical treatment depends on the situation but usually consists of blood thinners and anticoagulants, which is medicine that keeps the blood from clotting.

If the clot does not respond to medicinal treatment, a procedure known as a thrombectomy can be performed to remove the clot through catheters, similar to the treatment for narrowed or blocked coronary vessels.

“This kind of treatment isn’t usually needed, and its use depends on where the clot is. Not every institution offers that procedure,” Rasmussen said.

People at higher risk for a deep vein thrombosis include those who:

  • Have had previous clots or blood clotting disorders.
  • Recently have had cancer, undergone surgery or been hospitalized for an extended period of time.
  • Have traveled long distances without moving.

Gradual development

A key point to remember is that a deep vein thrombosis is often getting started well before a patient feels anything.

“They’ll start to notice symptoms and put one and two together,” Rasmussen said. “The symptoms are not going away and are actually getting worse, they start to notice swelling, an ache and it starts to turn red. Sometimes it takes patients a while to put all the symptoms together and make them concerned enough to go to the doctor.”

A deep vein thrombosis is a serious condition because the clot in a vein may detach and travel through the heart to the lungs. If it becomes wedged in the lungs it can prevent adequate blood flow, a potentially fatal condition.

If you’re experiencing symptoms that you believe could be DVT, contact your doctor and request an appointment.

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