Blood clots can form in a vein deep in the body. The medical term is deep venous thrombosis (DVT).
Clots occur when the blood thickens at one or more places and clumps of cells form. Usually this happens in the lower leg or thigh. One or more clumps may break off and travel through the blood stream. If the clots block the lungs, this may cause a serious problem and can result in death. Clots in the lower leg are less likely to break off than clots in the thighs. While clots in a leg are most common, clots can form in other parts of the body.
Signs and Symptoms
Only about half the people who develop deep vein thrombosis will exhibit symptoms. The clots may never cause a problem for some unaware of their condition. If the clots break off and travel in the blood stream to lodge in the lungs or heart, noticeable symptoms will appear.
If you notice a sudden onset of shortness of breath, pain with deep breathing, a fast heart rate or you begin coughing up blood, you need to seek immediate medical attention.
If you do develop early symptoms of DVT, you will notice significant swelling of the affected leg. It may also become red and painful and may begin to feel warm. As soon as you realize what is occurring, get medical help right away to prevent serious complications.
There are several ways in which DVT is diagnosed, but two are most often used. A physician will examine your affected leg and determine if what she sees is likely to be the result of DVT. She will refer you to an ultrasound technician for an examination. Ultrasound uses sound waves to create a picture of blood flow. Clumped blood can be detected with this device. Another method is venography. A dye is injected into a vein and then an X-ray is done. A concentration of dye on the X-ray may indicate a clot.
The goal of treatment is to prevent additional clotting, bigger clots forming and breaking off. Blood thinners, called anticoagulants, are the primary treatment. Heparin, given by injection, usually begins treatment. Heparin is a fast-acting medication used to thin your blood. Warfarin (trade name Coumadin) takes several days to become effective. When warfarin reaches the proper level, the other medication is stopped. Treatment with warfarin usually lasts from three to six months, during which blood tests for its level are done periodically.
More serious clotting may result in the use of blood thinners that are more potent, but increase the possibility of internal bleeding. Some patients require surgery to insert a filter device.
Clots are not removed by medication. Over time, your body will usually dissolve some or all of the clots. However, some clots may remain for life. Your physician may prescribe compression stockings to wear for six months to a year after medication is halted. The design of the stockings prevents blood from pooling in your legs. This helps reduce the incidence of further clotting.