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How to Spot Deep Vein Thrombosis

Learn if you’re at risk and what to look for

A doctor examining the varicose veins of the lower leg of a VeteranMany things can cause pain or swelling in your leg. In fact, deep vein thrombosis can have the same symptoms as many other health problems. They can happen to anyone, anytime. It's more common among people over the age of 60.

Taking steps to reduce your chances of a blood clot forming in your veins can help you avoid serious problems.

Understanding DVT

When a clot forms in a vein, deep in the body, it’s called deep vein thrombosis, or DVT. It typically occurs in the lower leg or thigh but can develop in your arm or another part of the body. If that clot breaks loose and travels to the lung, it’s called a pulmonary embolus, or PE. This can cut off the flow of blood in the lungs. A blood clot in the lungs is a medical emergency and may cause death.

How DVT develops

Blood clots develop when blood thickens and clumps together. The deep veins of the legs carry blood from the legs to the heart. When leg muscles contract and relax, blood is squeezed through the veins back to the heart. One-way valves inside the veins help keep the blood moving in the right direction. When blood moves too slowly or not at all, it can pool in the veins. This makes a clot more likely to form.

Blood clots are also more likely to form when there is inflammation or trauma to the vessel. Some people develop blood clots at a higher rate than others due to conditions that cause the blood to clot easily. This is called a hypercoagulable state. Some hypercoagulable states are passed genetically through your parents, but some are acquired, such as with cancer.

Risk factors

Anyone can develop a blood clot. Suppose you’ve been traveling for a long time, been in the hospital and unable to move, or were even in an accident. In that case, you may be at risk of developing clots. If you’ve experienced the following, you may be at higher risk:

  • Personal or family history of a blood-clotting disorder

  • Having blood clots in the past

  • Recent surgery

  • Cancer and certain cancer treatments

  • Smoking

  • Sedentary lifestyle

However, anyone can develop a blood clot, even without any risk factors. Therefore, it's important to know the signs and symptoms.

Know the signs

Most people with a deep vein thrombosis will develop pain and swelling in their leg. The leg may be swollen, red, or tender to the touch. Occasionally a rope-like cord can be felt under the skin. Your leg may ache when you walk and feel better if it's elevated.

If a deep vein thrombosis dislodges from the vein and becomes a pulmonary embolus, it can cause shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. You may also feel light-headed or faint and your heart may be beating fast. A pulmonary embolism is a life-threatening condition and requires immediate treatment. Call 911 immediately if you’re having trouble breathing or chest pain.

All blood clots should be treated to prevent long term complications, such as persistent pain and swelling in the leg, and to reduce the risk for PE.

Diagnosing DVT

Deep vein thrombosis is easy to diagnose. Typically, a doctor will order an ultrasound of your leg to look for blood clots. The ultrasound uses sound waves to look inside your body. It's painless and takes less than 15 minutes to complete. If you have a My HealtheVet Premium Account, you can view, download, and share your ultrasound images in the VA Medical Images and Reports section of your Blue Button Report.

If you have signs or symptoms suggestive of pulmonary embolism, additional testing may be required.

Treatment for DVT

Deep vein thrombosis is treated using blood thinners. There are many types of blood thinners. Your doctor will choose the blood thinner that is best for you. Most patients only need to take blood thinners for a short amount of time, such as a few months. However, some people are at high risk of developing another blood clot. If your doctor determines you're at high risk, life-long blood thinners may be recommended.

Contact your doctor using Secure Messaging (sign in required) to discuss hospital and at-home medication treatments. Your doctor may run some blood tests to check for clotting. My HealtheVet’s self-entered Vitals + Readings section makes it easy to track how you're doing.

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Read More

Understanding Deep Vein Thrombosis (Veterans Health Library)

Complications of Deep Vein Thrombosis (Veterans Health Library)

Preventing Deep Vein Thrombosis (Veterans Health Library)

Vitals + Readings

Updated June 14, 2021