Lately, blood clot risk has been in the news. Ever since the CDC and FDA placed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on hold until the six cases of women who developed blood clots can be reviewed to determine their potential significance, more of us are asking, “What is my risk for developing life-threatening blood clots?”
First, keep in mind, that the type of blood clot developed by the six women who took the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was a cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST). This type of clot forms in the area of the brain that collects and drains oxygen-depleted blood. When this happens, blood cells may break and leak blood into the brain tissues, forming a hemorrhage. CVST is a rare form of stroke affecting about 5 people in 1 million each year.
What is a blood clot?
Clotting of blood is a process preventing bleeding when a blood vessel is injured such as cutting yourself or from a fall. To stop the bleeding, a type of blood cell called platelets along with proteins in your blood plasma, work together to form a clot over the injury. Think of it sort of like putting a plug in the drain hole of a bathtub to prevent water from draining out. This type of blood clotting is a natural and necessary action to prevent ‘bleeding out’ or hemorrhaging to death.
But sometimes, clots can form on the inside walls of vessels from no obvious injury and do not dissolve naturally. These clots can be dangerous and require appropriate action to resolve. This type of blood clot is dangerous because it may restrict the return of blood to the heart and can become painful and swell as blood gathers around the clot. Blood clots that form in major veins of the leg or sometimes in an arm, the pelvis, or other large veins, are called deep vein thrombosis or DVT. DVT clots usually are stationary or not moving throughout the body. But if a clot in a vein detaches from its point of origin and travels to the heart or lungs blocking blood flow, then it’s called a pulmonary embolism (PE) and is extremely dangerous.
Currently, the CDC estimates that 900,000 Americans each year develop blood clots known as DVT/PE also called venous thromboembolism, which is more common than CVST blood clots. Out of this number, it’s estimated that 100,000 people will die from it every year. Due to their nature being undiagnosed and yet serious enough to be potentially deadly, the first and most important thing you can do to protect yourself from a life-threatening blood clot is to learn if you are at risk and if so, what you can do about it.
Here is a list of some of the most common risk factors associated with blood clots – the more risk factors you have, the greater chance of developing blood clots:
- Hospitalization for illness or surgery
- Major surgery, particularly of the pelvis, abdomen, hips, and knees
- Severe trauma, such as being in a car accident
- Injury to a vein that may have been caused by a broken bone or severe muscle injury
- Hip or knee replacement surgery
- Cancer and cancer treatments
- Use of birth control methods that contain estrogens, such as the pill, patch, or ring
- Pregnancy, which includes up to three months after the baby is born
- The use of hormone therapy that contains estrogen
- A family history of blood clots
- Confinement to bed
- Sitting too long such as on an extended flight, especially with legs crossed
How would I know if I have a blood clot?
Besides knowing your risk factors, it’s also important to be aware of symptoms associated with a blood clot. Symptoms may vary depending on the location of a clot but here are areas of the body where blood clots can occur and what symptoms you may have:
- Heart: Shortness of breath, chest pain or heaviness, sweating, nausea, light-headedness
- Brain: Weakness of the face, arms, or legs, difficulty speaking, vision problems, sudden and severe headache, dizziness
- Arm or leg: Sudden or gradual pain, swelling, tenderness, redness and warmth
- Lung: Sharp chest pain, racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating, fever, coughing up blood
- Abdomen: Severe abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea
How are blood clots treated?
Once a proper diagnosis has been made determining a blood clot is present, doctors will often refer patients to a hematologist specializing in treating blood diseases. Other doctors who may be involved in the treatment of blood clots are a cardiologist and neurologist. Treatment will be dependent upon the location of the clot and your overall health. Some current treatments used include:
- Anticoagulants used to prevent clots from forming
- Thrombolytics used to dissolve blood clots
- Catheter-directed thrombolysis a procedure using a long tube surgically inserted and directed toward a blood clot delivering clot-dissolving medication
- Thrombectomy is surgical removal of a clot
How can I prevent blood clots?
This is the million-dollar question. Fortunately, there are several ways to reduce your risk of a blood clot by taking certain precautions which include:
- Several times a day, elevate your legs about 6 inches above your heart for several minutes
- Eat less salt
- Do not stand or sit for more than 1 hour at a time
- If you are traveling by car, stop every hour or two. Get out and walk around for a few minutes. If traveling by bus, train, or plane, get out of your seat and walk up and down the aisle every hour or so
- While seated on an airplane, raise and lower your toes, keeping heels on the floor. Then raise and lower your heels, keeping toes on the floor. Do this every 20 minutes.
- If you already have a risk of blood clots, talk to your doctor before a long trip. They may want you to take blood-thinning medication.
- Wear compression stockings if your doctor prescribes them
- Wear loose-fitting clothes, socks, or stockings
- Take all medications prescribed to you by your doctor