Deep vein thrombosis, commonly called DVT, refers to blood clots that form in the deep veins of the extremities. Most of the time these clots occur in a person’s legs, but they can develop in the arms too. Deep vein thrombosis alone is not fatal, but if the DVT turns into a pulmonary embolism it can cause sudden death.
Signs & Symptoms of Deep Vein Thrombosis
There are several common signs that a person may have developed a DVT. A person may present with all of the symptoms or a mix of them. In some cases however, there are very few signs at all. Recognizing these signs early and seeking medical attention immediately are key to preventing a fatal pulmonary embolism from developing.
- Swelling of the extremity
- Cramping feeling in the extremity
- Increasing pain when foot is pointed upwards
There are many things that can increase a person’s risk for deep vein thrombosis. DVT can affect anyone of any age ranging from a young woman who has just had a baby, to a middle aged businessman on a long overseas flight, to an older adult undergoing knee replacement surgery. Understand the things that may increase your risk for DVT and discuss them with a doctor.
- Older age
- Recent surgery
- Genetic clotting disorders
- Hormonal contraceptive use
- Hormone replacement therapy
- Recent trauma
- Personal or family history of blood clots
Diagnosis & Treatment
Diagnosis is made based on presenting signs and symptoms, in addition to imaging and blood work. Several blood tests can be done by your doctor, such as a D-dimer test. Various imaging techniques – ultrasound, CT scan, venography, etc. – are done to visualize the blood clot in the vein. After the diagnosis is confirmed, there are several ways to treat deep vein thrombosis.
- Anticoagulant medications — to prevent the clot from getting bigger while your body slowly breaks it down over several months (*the most common method)
- Thrombolytic medications — in emergency situations, to destroy the blood clot immediately
- Surgical options — to remove the clot, also used in emergency situations
- Inferior vena cava filters — tiny filters resembling umbrellas placed in a vein in the lower leg to prevent pieces of the blood clot from traveling anywhere else in the body
If a person has factors that increase their risk there are ways to prevent a DVT from forming. See the prevention link for additional information.
- Leg exercises — wiggling your toes and doing ankle rolls keeps blood flowing
- Anticoagulant medications
- Compression stockings (which resemble nylons/knee socks)
- Sequential compression devices — mechanical devices that inflate and deflate to prevent blood clots from forming
Smeltzer, S. C., Bare, B. G., Hinkle, J. L., & Cheever, K. H. (2010). Brunner and Suddarth’s textbook of medical surgical nursing (12th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkins.