Venous thromboembolism (VTE) may sound like a complicated health condition. It’s a very straightforward, but serious problem. The condition occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein, typically in a leg, and then travels to the lungs. VTE is a combination of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE). Venous thromboembolism can be fatal, but if it’s diagnosed in time, it can often be treated safely and effectively.
An estimated 10 million cases of VTE are diagnosed every year around the world. In the United States alone, between 100,000 and 300,000 people die from this condition. VTE is one of the most common cardiovascular problems facing adults today.
Unfortunately, it often develops while a person is in the hospital. Lying down for an extended period can drastically affect circulation, causing VTE to occur. Post-surgical patients are especially at risk.
To better understand this severe health complication that can result from VTE, it’s important to understand how blood flows to and from the heart, and what can go wrong with that process.
When the heart contracts, blood travels in arteries throughout the body, picking up oxygen and nutrients in the lungs and supplying oxygen and nutrients to the organs, muscles, and other tissue. Blood returns to the heart through a network of veins.
If a blood clot forms in a blood vessel and blocks blood flow, it’s called a thromboembolism. The word “venous” refers to a vein. When that blockage occurs in a vein, it’s called a venous thromboembolism.
The word “pulmonary” refers to the lungs. If an artery is blocked in the lungs, the condition is a pulmonary embolism.
So what puts you at a risk for those dangerous blood clots? The biggest risk factor is prolonged bed rest. Lying flat on your back for days on end isn’t great for blood flow. Blood can pool in your veins and form a clot. If the cause of your bed rest is major surgery, such as a hip replacement procedure, the risk of venous thromboembolism is even greater.
Other risk factors for blood clots include:
- sitting for long periods without moving your legs, such as on a long airplane flight
- a history of blood clots
- recent childbirth
VTE can develop without obvious symptoms. The following symptoms should be taken seriously and require immediate medical attention:
- a reddening of the skin
All of those symptoms can indicate the presence of a deep vein clot. If the area of swelling or discomfort is also warm to the touch, there’s a good chance you have a DVT.
If you have a PE, you might not notice any symptoms, but a clot in a pulmonary vein can result in shortness of breath or chest pain when you breathe deeply.
You may also experience the following if you have a PE:
- rapid heart rate
- rapid breathing
Several types of imaging techniques, including ultrasound and V/Q scanning, are used to diagnose DVT and PE.
Another approach is also used to diagnose PE and to find clots in the deep veins of the pelvis and elsewhere. It’s called computed tomographic pulmonary angiography (CTPA). It uses special X-ray equipment to provide your doctor with a detailed look inside your blood vessels.
If you have risk factors for VTE, such as obesity or a history of smoking, or you’re going to be resting in bed for a while due to surgery, talk with your doctor about what you can do to help prevent VTE. If you’re in the hospital or a rehabilitation center for an extended time, don’t hesitate to ask about VTE prevention.
Wearing a compression stocking may help prevent clots from forming during prolonged bed rest or a long trip. Your doctor may prescribe anticoagulant medications, also known as blood thinners, to help reduce the risk of blood clot formation. Getting up and walking around frequently, if possible, is also highly recommended.
Talking to your doctor about risks and seeking immediate medical help if symptoms appear can make the difference between life and death. Once a clot lodges in the lungs, your heart has to work harder to pump blood through the lungs and out to the rest of the body. This kind of strain on the heart can raise your blood pressure, especially in the veins coming from the lungs to the heart (pulmonary veins), and it can eventually lead to heart failure.
VTE may not be as well known as a heart attack or stroke, but it can be just as serious. Do what you can to manage your risk factors and recognize signs of trouble.