DVT: What it is and how it’s prevented

This content is sponsored by MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a condition in which a blood clot forms in one or more deep veins in your body—most often in the legs and sometimes in the arms. It’s a condition that impacts as many as 900,000 people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are measures that can be taken to prevent DVT and evolving ways in which it can be treated, said Dr. Steven Abramowitz, vascular surgeon at MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute.

To understand more about DVT and what it is, Dr. Abramowitz recommended thinking of it like D.C.’s roads. The big roads like New Hampshire Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue or Georgia Avenue are the deep veins. The smaller side streets – like T and U streets – are the superficial veins. Everything funnels into the main roads – or deep veins – and sometimes there can be a traffic jam. In the case of our bodies, that traffic jam manifests as a blood clot.

“That blood clot can occur anywhere those deep veins are — the arms, the legs, essentially anywhere you may have a deep vein,” Dr. Abramowitz said.

Depending on where the clot is, it can lead to a variety of different systems which can yield different results for a patient. If it breaks free, however, it can go back to the heart and cause a pulmonary embolism, he said.

For those who have DVT in their lower extremities, the most common symptoms include a hot burning sensation in the legs, new pain or intense cramping while walking and swelling in an extremity.

DVT is a “condition that can affect anybody of any given age,” Dr. Abramowitz said.

“Anybody can fall victim to (DVT). And really it depends on what’s going on with someone else’s health,” he added.

For example, patients who are younger, like in their teens, can have DVT – which may alert doctors that they have a clotting issue or blood disorder. Other times, DVT can impact a patient who has had surgery or a condition that makes them less mobile and, therefore, more vulnerable to blood clots.

One of the best ways to prevent DVT is to get up and move around. For those who may be immobilized because of surgery or another health condition, it’s important to do exercises to keep the blood circulating. And for those who sit for long periods at work or while traveling, they need to remember to get up and move, Dr. Abramowitz said.

“If you’re getting on a plane, I always tell patients not to have those two or three glasses of wine and fall asleep. Make sure you get up and walk around every hour or so,” he said.

There are two main treatment options for DVT. Most people with DVT are treated with an anticoagulation agent, also known as a blood thinner.

“The reason we put someone on a blood thinner is not that it actually gets rid of a blood clot, but that it makes it less likely for a blood clot to form,” Dr. Abramowitz said. “Because our bodies have a natural ability to break down clots over time.”

For patients who have an extensive clot, doctors can go in with a catheter and give medication directly into that clot to make it go away faster. The clot can go away in one single session through this method, Dr. Abramowitz said.

The risk of leaving DVT untreated depends on where in the body the DVT is and how long it’s left untreated. Blood clots below the knee usually cause swelling short-term but don’t necessarily result in long-term damage. However, blood clots above the knee can lead to long-term drainage problems from the leg and can result in swelling or wounds.

It’s vital to determine the extent of the blood clot and where it is “so we can predict what someone’s risk is in the future for developing problems as a result of their DVT,” Dr. Abramowitz said.

When patients have DVT, doctors want to determine if there is another condition that may be causing blood clots and treat that.

“Any time someone has a DVT, it always prompts us to ask the question, ‘why did this happen and what can we do to figure it out for this patient in particular? What led to this state of being?’” he said.

Dr. Abramowitz said that about 80 percent of the time, they are able to find out why someone has DVT and it often can be because of another medical condition, anatomic reason or genetic reason.

MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s interdisciplinary approach and caring staff make it a great destination for those seeking DVT care, Dr. Abramowitz said.

“At MedStar Washington Hospital Center we offer all of the new therapeutic interventions for DVT management,” he said. “We have the tools to treat your DVT and also then take care of you because the DVT is a symptom of something else most likely.”

Read more and listen to a podcast with Dr. Abramowitz here.

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