Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)

copyright Max Wettstein, NOT Medical Advice

    What the heck is Deep Vein Thrombosis, or DVT?  (Also referred to as ‘Economy Class Syndrome’)  Well those of you that have been flying the Line for many years are probably familiar with DVT, but for those of us new to this airline way of life, it is a pretty scary medical condition when you first hear about it.  Basically it can develop when you sit for a long period without moving or flexing your legs much, and your blood begins to pool in the veins of your lower legs, so much so that eventually a clot, or ‘Thrombi’, can form.

    Just to refresh your memory, your veins, (as opposed to your arteries), are the blood vessels that return your oxygen-depleted blood back to your heart and lungs.  Arteries are full of pressure and good blood flow as the oxygen-rich blood leaves the heart.  By the time your blood starts making its way back from your lower legs however, the flow is a bit weakened.  When you stand and walk, your leg muscles literally act as pumps, helping to push the blood back up.  And when you lay down flow is easily maintained as well.  Sitting causes pooling, especially if you can not elevate your legs, or if the seat rest is putting pressure on the back of your thighs.  Our veins have flow valves in them to prevent back flow, but they can become stretched and bulge, leading to a varicose condition, further increasing risk for a clot.

     If a clot develops, it is not necessarily a crisis.  In fact many of us have probably had small clots develop on a long Transcon, and simply dissolve shortly after landing.  That being said, if you ever suspect you have a clot, seek medical attention immediately!  Symptoms can include swollen ankles, localized pressure, pain, hardness, and redness, in the area of the clot.  If you dorsi-flex your foot, (point your toes up), and feel pain, it could be a sign.  The real danger arises if the clot breaks free and makes it way up to your vital organs, especially the brain, heart, or lungs, and then blocks blood flow to them.  A Stroke, embolism, or heart-attack are possible life-threatening conditions that may develop.  There are two groupings of veins in the lower leg that are at risk, inner and surface.  A clot in the surface veins, (the veins located just below your skin), is less critical than a clot that develops in the inner veins.  If you ever suspect you have developed a blood clot, end your trip and go see a doctor ASAP.  You need to take this seriously, or you could end up dead.  Treatment can be as simple as massage, aspirin, and compression socks, or as complex as hospitalization, surgery to remove the clot, and prescription blood-thinners.  Then of course, you have to worry about being grounded!

    So, after all this heavy talk, are you at risk, or should you just blow this off?  Well, if you’re primarily flying Transcons with 4 hour block times or longer, then you are at risk, (especially if you’re adding in a commute on one side or the other).  As you may be able to guess, if you smoke, are obese, are over 50 years old, or have had other cardiovascular health problems, then you are at greater risk.

    So what can you do to lower your risk?  There is a lot you can do, and it certainly doesn’t take a flight Doc’ to figure it out.  Get up and move around.  Stay hydrated.  When you are seated, elevate your legs by using the nifty foot rests we have.  Stretch and flex your legs every so often.  Limit your caffeine and other diuretics.  When you get to the hotel, or at the airport during a stopover, exercise or go for a walk.  This may sound obvious, or like common sense, but now that you’re aware of the risk, you will be more conscientious.

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