Blood clot formation, also known as coagulation, is your body’s normal response in certain situations. For example, if you cut your hand or finger, a blood clot forms in the injured area to stop the bleeding and help heal your cut. These types of blood clots are not only beneficial, but help prevent excessive blood loss in the event you are badly hurt.

A blood clot can occur in just about any part of the body. Blood clots are usually harmless. Sometimes, though, blood clots can be dangerous. For example, undergoing major surgery can make you more susceptible to developing dangerous blood clots in areas such as the lungs or brain.

What Is a Blood Clot?

Platelets, which are a form of blood cells, and plasma, the liquid part of your blood, join forces to help stop bleeding and form a clot in an injured area. You are probably most familiar with blood clots on the skin surface, which are commonly referred to as scabs. Usually once the injured area heals, your body will naturally dissolve the blood clot.

There are cases where clots form inside of your blood vessels even though you do not have an injury. These clots do not dissolve naturally and this is a dangerous condition. Clots in your veins can restrict the return of blood to the heart. This can cause pain and swelling due to the collection of blood behind the clot.

Surgery Risk Factors

Your risk for developing blood clots increases after surgery. One type of clot you are at increased risk for is a condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT refers to the formation of blood clots in deep veins in your body such as your legs, arms, or pelvis. It is possible for clots to break off from a DVT and make their way to the heart, lungs, or brain, preventing adequate blood flow to these organs.

The main reason you are at an increased risk of developing DVT after surgery is because of your inactivity during and after the surgery. Muscle movement is needed to continuously pump blood to your heart. This inactivity causes blood to collect in the lower part of your body, generally the leg and hip regions. This can lead to a clot. If your blood is not allowed to flow freely and mix with anticoagulants, you have a higher risk of developing a blood clot.

In addition to inactivity, surgery also increases your risk for clots because the surgery can cause foreign matter to be released into your blood stream, including tissue debris, collagen, and fat. When your blood comes into contact with foreign matter, it responds by thickening. This release can cause the blood to coagulate. Additionally, in response to the removal or movement of soft tissues during surgery, your body may release naturally occurring substances that encourage blood clotting.

Preventing Blood Clots After Surgery

There are things that can be done to prevent blood clots after surgery. The most important thing you can do is to relay your medical history to your doctor. If you have a history of blood clots or are currently taking drugs or medications, you should inform your doctor.

Some blood disorders can lead to problems with clotting and cause problems after surgery. Taking aspirin has also been shown to help with blood clots, so starting an aspirin regimen can be helpful.

Your doctor may prescribe warfarin (Coumadin) or heparin, which are common blood thinners. Blood thinners, or anticoagulants, are used to treat excessive blood clotting. They can also help any clots that you currently have from getting bigger.

Before surgery, your doctor will take all of the necessary precautions to prevent blood clots. After surgery, they will make sure that your arm or legs are elevated, in order to help increase circulation.

If you have a high risk of clots, your doctor may observe and monitor you using serial duplex ultrasound scans. Thrombolytics, clot-dissolving medications, may be used in high-risk pulmonary embolism (PE) cases. These medications are injected into your bloodstream.

Lifestyle changes prior to surgery may also help. These may include quitting smoking or adopting an exercise program.

After surgery, once your doctor gives you permission, make sure that you move around as much as possible. Moving around lowers your chance of developing a blood clot. Your doctor may also recommend compression stockings. These can help prevent leg swelling.

Blood Clot Symptoms

There are always risks associated with any type of surgery. DVT and PE are potential complications that you should pay close attention to. According to the American Society of Hematology, as many as 900,000 people in the United States develop DVT each year, and up to 100,000 people a year die from this condition.

Many people don’t understand the symptoms and risk factors associated with clots. Common symptoms of blood clots include:

Clot LocationSymptoms
HeartChest heaviness or pain, arm numbness, discomfort in other areas of the upper body, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, light-headedness
BrainWeakness of the face, arms, or legs, difficulty speaking or garbled speech, vision problems, sudden and severe headache, dizziness
Arm or legSudden or gradual pain in the limb, swelling, tenderness, and warmth in the limb
LungSharp chest pain, racing heart or rapid breathing, shortness of breath, sweating, fever, coughing up blood
AbdomenSevere abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea

If you think you have a blood clot, immediately contact your doctor so that you can undergo treatment. In the event you do have surgery, your doctor can go over all of the risk factors as well as recommend the best way for you to prepare.