While the chances of it occurring are slim, preventing DTV makes sense for travelers.
If you’re anything like me, the last thing you think about during a flight is moving around the cabin. A scardey-cat from way back (I took my first airplane ride when I was 16, and shook in my seat while I gripped the armrests the entire six hours it took to get to our destination), I rarely get out of my seat (save for a trip or two to the restroom) and pay rapt attention to the flight attendant’s safety demonstrations (even though I try to act nonchalant).
But there is a reason – other than to use the bathroom or go talk to a friend sitting a few rows behind you – to move around during airline travel.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a major health threat that occurs when a blood clot forms in a large vein. The outcome can be serious or even life threatening: part of the clot may break off and travel to your lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism (PE).
It’s estimated that between 300,000 to 600,000 Americans have these conditions each year and that 60,000 to 100,000 die as a result. Aside from that, many people who have either condition suffer from complications that have a great impact on their health and quality of life.
While the consequences can be grave, guidelines published by The College of Chest Physicians stress that the chances of developing DVT/PE following long-distance air travel is still very low.
Symptoms of DVT
Since the condition could potentially be life threatening, it’s important to know the symptoms. (Note: Not everyone will experience these symptoms. When they’re present, they may include one or more of the following):
- Swelling (sometimes sudden) of the arm or leg
- Pain or tenderness in the leg (may only be felt when standing or walking)
- Increased warmth or pain in the area of the swollen arm or leg
- Skin redness or discoloration
- (Superficial) vein enlargement in the affected arm or leg
Symptoms of PE
A pulmonary embolism is a medical emergency that should be evaluated and treated as soon as possible. Symptoms may include:
- Sudden shortness of breath
- Sharp chest pain (often made worse by moving or coughing)
- Back pain
- Excessive perspiration
- Rapid pulse
- Rapid breathing
- Lightheadedness or fainting
Are You at Risk?
Remember the NBC journalist, David Bloom? Ten years ago while on assignment (and spending a lot of time driving around in a cramped jeep), he died suddenly. The cause: a pulmonary embolism caused by prolonged immobility. A few other factors contributed to his DVT: dehydration and an inherited blood coagulation disorder called Factor V Leiden.
Other risk factors For DVT include having had major surgery or a recent injury, increased estrogen levels (from birth control pills, pregnancy and certain other medications, previous DVT, age (risk rises with increased age), obesity, and smoking.
Prevention, as the saying goes, is the best medicine. Here are some tips for preventing DVT during your travels:
- Avoid sitting in the same position for long periods. When flying, get up and walk around every two to three hours.
- Wear loose fitting clothing when traveling and consider wearing compression stockings when you fly, especially if the trip is six hours or longer, or if you have one or more risk factors for DVT.
- Regardless of your risk, make sure to stay well hydrated. Not only can this directly lower your DVT risk, but it’s a sure way get you out of your seat, since it’s a guarantee you’ll have to use the restroom!
- And remember: “exercise” for your legs does not mean blocking the aisle while doing a set of deep knee bends. Just tapping your feet, wiggling your toes and tightening and loosening your leg muscles while you sit is good. Getting out of your seat to stretch and walk around? Even better.
- Opt for an aisle seat rather than a window. Sitting in a window seat impedes mobility.
- Also, talk to your health care provider about certain medications (like anticoagulants) that may help prevent the condition, and try to exercise consistently and maintain a healthy weight.
Sheryl Kraft is a freelance journalist, essayist and writer of non-fiction based in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Her writing covers all areas, with a concentration in health, wellness and fitness. Her work has appeared in Prevention, Woman’s Day, Everyday Health, Grandparents.com, MinervaPlace, JAMA, AARP, Weight Watchers, Bottom Line/Health, Bottom Line/Women’s Health, Caring Today and assorted Connecticut regional publications. She blogs about growing older and feeling fabulous at My So-Called Midlife and on Midlife Matters.