By Jill Buterbaugh, RN, MSN, CRNP, FNP-BC
Many people develop a blood clot during their life but are unaware or don’t understand the causative factors or the implications they pose. Blood clots can develop in any vein in the body but most commonly occur in the legs. They are differentiated by the location, being in the superficial system or the deep system. The superficial system is termed “superficial” but includes all the veins from the skin down to the deep system and if healthy, are not visible to the naked eye. The deep system is comprised of larger veins that are located deeper in the legs and drain directly into the large veins in the pelvis and abdomen.
While most drawings of the venous system appear simple, the network is very complex with many branches and connections between the veins.
In certain circumstances, blood clots that develop in the superficial system can be dangerous depending on how close they are to where the superficial and the deep system connect. For the most part, while they are painful and annoying they are not dangerous. It is your body’s way of destroying veins that are no longer working correctly or can result from trauma or injury to the vein. These clots are known as superficial thrombophlebitis or some people just refer to it as phlebitis. Deep system blood clots are more dangerous. Blood clots that travel through the deep system can go to the brain causing a stroke or to the lungs and heart that can cause permanent damage or even death.
What factors increase the risk for blood clots?
Age: As we age the blood vessels also age causing changes that are more likely to cause a blood clot to develop than in a younger person with younger veins.
Immobility: Walking is an important function of blood flow because the calf muscle contraction helps “pump” the blood back toward the heart. Anytime a person has a splint, cast or decreased use of the ankle joint as well as being confined to bed from illness or injury is more prone to blood clots. When the blood is not flowing correctly, it becomes stagnant and more likely to clot. Traveling for long distances has also been proven to increase the risk of blood clots.
Pregnancy, hormone therapy or birth control pill use: Certain hormones can increase the tendency of the blood to clot increasing the risk during the use of supplemental hormones or as a natural effect during pregnancy.
Genetics: There are some genetically inherited disorders known as Anti-thrombin deficiency, Protein C or Protein S deficiency, or Factor V Leiden that make a person more prone to developing blood clots.
Cancer: Having cancer is considered a risk factor for blood clots due to its effects on the factors in our body that cause blood clots to develop.
Surgery: Orthopedic surgery, especially knee and hip replacements, gynecologic and urologic surgeries all have higher rates of developing blood clots as a complication.
General Health: Other diseases and side effects of some medications can increase the risk as well as smoking and dehydration.
How do you prevent blood clots?
Maintaining good overall health, exercising regularly, and maintaining hydration are all important to decrease the risk of blood clots. Smoking cessation and avoiding sitting/standing in one position for extended periods of time also help. Knowing your family history of blood clots can help identify those individuals who may need further testing. If you should suspect you may have a blood clot, you should seek immediate medical care for proper diagnosis and treatment.
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