Deep Vein Thrombosis - or DVT - Not Well Known by Public, but Leading Cause of Death in U.S.
Dr. Geoffrey Westrich, an Expert on DVT Prevention, Seeks to Educate Public About Life-Threatening, But Preventable Condition
(New York, N.Y. May 2004). Many people have never heard of deep-vein thrombosis, although more people suffer from DVT each year than from heart attack and stroke combined. Up to 2 million Americans are affected annually by DVT, according to the American Heart Association. It claims 200,000 lives each year. Deep-vein thrombosis, occurs when a blood clot forms in a large leg vein. DVT becomes life-threatening if part of the clot breaks off and travels to the lungs, causing a condition known as a pulmonary embolism.
"DVT is a serious public health concern," says Dr. Geoffrey Westrich , an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery and expert on DVT prevention. "But awareness of the problem and preventive measures save lives," adds Dr. Westrich, who has conducted more than 20 studies on DVT prevention.
DVT has been dubbed "economy class syndrome" because people taking long plane trips are increased risk. Prolonged immobility and cramped conditions cause blood to pool in leg veins, setting the stage for a blood clot. Former NBC News correspondent David Bloom died tragically while covering the war in Iraq last year from a pulmonary embolism after traveling in a cramped position for an extended period of time. Bloom was only 39 years-old.
More people die in the U.S. from DVT than from breast cancer, AIDS and highway fatalities combined, according to the Coalition to Prevent Deep-Vein Thrombosis. What's worse, hospitalized patients at increased risk of DVT don't always receive preventive care, according to a study published this year in the American Journal of Cardiology . The study looked at 5,000 hospital patients with increased risk factors such as obesity, surgery and prolonged immobility. Researchers found that less than one-third of patients developed had received appropriate preventive care, although treatments such as compression stockings to improve leg circulation and anticoagulant drugs have been shown to prevent blood clots and reduce the DVT rate significantly.
Dr. Westrich has published numerous studies on how to prevent DVT following hip and knee replacement surgery. "Without preventive treatment, up to 60 percent of patients who undergo total hip replacement surgery can develop DVT," he says. "Patients who are scheduled for surgery or have medical problems that will restrict their movement for long periods of time should discuss preventive treatment with their doctor. Family members can also keep a watchful eye to ensure that their loved one is getting proper care to prevent a blood clot."
In addition to the increased risk from being bedridden after surgery, other risk factors include advanced age, obesity, an illness that restricts mobility, cardiovascular disease, cancer, pregnancy, and confined conditions and prolonged immobility caused by long-distance travel.
Dr. Westrich has also found that some people may have a genetic predisposition to developing a blood clot. In a study published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, Dr. Westrich used advanced genetic testing and discovered that hip replacement patients who developed DVT had certain gene variations that increased risk. "Future refinements and increased availability of genetic screening tests will allow pre-operative identification of susceptible patients so appropriate preventive measures can be taken," he said.
DVT often strikes suddenly and without warning. Symptoms may include pain, swelling, tenderness, discoloration or redness of the affected area, and skin that is warm to the touch. However, up to half of all DVT episodes produce minimal symptoms, or they may not develop for days after a plane trip. "Anyone who has symptoms should seek medical help immediately," Dr. Westrich advises.
To prevent DVT when traveling, he advises people taking long airplane flights (or long car trips) to get up and walk around, do simple leg exercises in their seats and drink plenty of water to be well hydrated.