Blood clots: what you need to know and watch out for

Blood clot, medicine aid for thrombus in vein or artery. Deep vein thrombosis DVT, artery and vein cholesterol sick, abnormally of blood vascular flow. Blocked circulation blood vessel. Vector

Blood clots can be dangerous, even life-threatening. About 900,000 Americans develop blood clots annually, and nearly 100,000 people die as a result.

WellTuned spoke with Dr. Ian Hamilton, a medical director for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to learn more how to gauge your risk for developing a blood clot—and what to do if you develop signs of one.

What are blood clots?

Dr. Hamilton: Blood clots are thought of as something to be avoided, but there is a good kind. If you get a cut, a process called coagulation makes clumps of blood cells, or clots, develop. This clotting is key to stopping the bleeding and allowing you to heal.

However, undesirable, or dangerous blood clots can also form in your veins or arteries. There, they can block blood flow and prevent oxygen from getting to your organs. One type of these clots, often referred as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), can form in the veins of your arms, legs or groin. Sometimes they can break off and travel to other parts of your body:

  1. A blood clot that travels to your lungs and causes a blockage is called a pulmonary embolism (PE). If it’s large enough, it can block so much of the flow of blood to the lungs that it can be fatal.
  2. A clot that travels to or forms in your heart arteries can cause a heart attack.
  3. And a clot that travels to your brain can cause a stroke.
  4. Clots that occur in the arteries that carry blood to your legs may cause:
    • Pain
    • Numbness
    • Weakness
    • Damage to the tissues that could become severe enough for amputation

How do you know if you have a blood clot?

Dr. Hamilton: The signs and symptoms of blood clots depend on where the clot is located. For example:

  • A pulmonary embolism can cause chest pain and trouble breathing.
  • DVT can cause sudden swelling in the leg, as well as pain and discoloration or redness in the affected area.
  • Chest pain could be angina, a heart attack, or pulmonary embolism, which should be evaluated immediately.
  • A stroke can cause a severe headache, weakness, or blind areas in your vision, so if you develop any of those signs, seek care right away.
  • Stroke and heart attack have much better outcomes if you receive treatment soon after symptoms appear.

You should see a healthcare provider right away if you suddenly develop some new or severe pain.

Who’s most at risk for developing blood clots?

Dr. Hamilton: People who are very inactive or immobile are at increased risk for developing a blood clot. For example, if you recently had surgery and can’t move around, you are at a higher risk. Your doctor may prescribe a blood thinner in this situation.

Other risk factors include:

You may be at increased risk if you have either a genetic or an acquired clotting abnormality. Two of the most commonly identified genetic defects that cause clots are Factor V Leiden and prothrombin gene mutation (G20210A), according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Also, if you do develop deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism, you will need to be on the lookout for signs of clots in the future. About 30% people who’ve had a DVT or PE are at risk for another episode.

Talk to your doctor about your risk

If you are at increased risk, talk to your doctor about any concerns you have. You may be able to take a blood-thinning medication to help prevent a clot from forming. Make sure your doctor knows about all medications, including over-the-counter medications, that you’re taking. Take all your prescribed medications as your doctor has instructed you to.

“Blood clots are a common cause of two of the most common serious medical conditions in the U.S.: heart attack and stroke,” says Dr. Hamilton. “A healthy diet, regular physical activity, annual visits to your primary care provider, and sticking to your prescribed medications can go a long way to protecting you from unwanted blood clots.”

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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