When you worry about your heart health, chances are your risk of having a heart attack or stroke comes to mind first. But another form of cardiovascular disease can be just as deadly, and since it’s not discussed as often, its symptoms can go unrecognized and untreated when they develop. Early indications of this third most common type of heart disease may appear subtle at first, but without timely intervention, life-threatening complications can ensue. One symptom that may manifest in your legs is of particular concern, and catching it early could mean the difference between life and death. Read on to find out how to recognize the earliest signs of a problem, and when to seek out immediate medical help.
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Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a potentially life-threatening, but entirely preventable, condition that occurs when a blood clot forms deep within a vein—most often in the pelvis, thigh, or lower leg. While about half of DVT patients experience no warning signs, others may notice swelling, pain, tenderness, and redness in the affected area, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some patients may also experience a sensation of warmth near the blood clot, meaning one leg may feel warmer to the touch than the other. DVT can also occur in the arms, but this happens less frequently.
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If you notice signs of DVT in your legs, it’s important to speak with your doctor immediately. “The most serious complication of DVT happens when a part of the clot breaks off and travels through the bloodstream to the lungs, causing a blockage called pulmonary embolism (PE),” explains the CDC. “If the clot is small, and with appropriate treatment, people can recover from PE. However, there could be some damage to the lungs. If the clot is large, it can stop blood from reaching the lungs and is fatal.”
It’s important to be aware of several symptoms of PE. If you notice any of these—and especially if they are paired with swelling, pain, or redness in the legs—you should call 911 right away. “The first signs are usually shortness of breath and chest pains that get worse if you exert yourself. You may cough up bloody sputum,” says the Cleveland Clinic. Additionally, rapid pulse, excessive sweating, light-headedness, clammy skin, and unexplained pain in the chest, arm, shoulder, neck, and jaw are all possible signs of PE.
The Cleveland Clinic’s website urges people to seek out immediate medical attention if they have any of the above symptoms. “Pulmonary embolism is serious but very treatable. Quick treatment greatly reduces the chance of death,” they add.
Anyone can develop DVT or PE, but having certain risk factors can increase your likelihood of experiencing the conditions. In particular, individuals suffering from heart disease, lung disease, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, or those who have a family history of DVT or PE are all at heightened risk. Your risk also increases with age and body mass index (BMI). Women are more likely to develop DVT or PE during pregnancy, in the three months following a pregnancy, and while taking birth control pills, says the CDC.
Otherwise healthy individuals who have experienced injury to a vein are also at increased risk of DVT and PE. A blood clot can form either as a result of the injury itself, or from reduced blood flow during recovery.
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We often think of blood clots as sudden, unavoidable, and catastrophic, but experts say there are many ways your doctor can intervene if they suspect DVT or PE. According to the Mayo Clinic, your doctor will make a treatment plan with three goals in mind: to keep the clot from getting bigger, to prevent it from breaking loose and traveling to the lungs, and to lessen your chances of suffering from another episode of DVT.
The most common intervention is to administer anticoagulants, also known as blood thinners. While this medication is unable to break up a current blood clot, it can prevent it from worsening and lower your risk of future clots, the Mayo Clinic explains.
Depending on the severity of your condition, your doctor may also consider giving you one of several thrombolytic medications—also known as “clot busters”—which can help break up a current clot. In cases where these methods prove ineffective, doctors will sometimes insert a filter into the vena cava vein to prevent a blood clot from reaching the lungs.
Speak with your doctor to discuss your own risk of DVT and PE—and if you notice any signs of DVT in your legs, be sure to request immediate care.
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