Dr. Jeffery Bates is the medicine and patient director at Houston's VA Hospital and is well-versed on the dangers of DVT, a condition where blood clots form in the large veins in the lower legs or thighs, usually due to an extended period of immobility. It wasn't until a long plane ride on a mission trip to Kenya a few years ago that Bates found out just how sneaky DVT is.
"I actually before the flight warned everyone about the dangers of DVT, drink lots of water, get up, walk around, basically do the exercises to help you prevent DVT, then I preceded to fall asleep on the plane and probably kept my leg in a funny position for about 5 hours. When we woke up to get off the plane and noticed that my leg was swollen."
Bates ignored the pain and swelling for about a week until he realized that it was something more serious than just a cramp. A trip to a hospital in Nairobi confirmed DVT in his right calf.
"We were in a spot where we couldn't get reliable follow-up so we opted to go ahead and do blood-thinning medication for the time that I was overseas until I could get back and get follow-up treatment in the United States."
It's the same condition that killed NBC reporter David Bloom in Iraq, when a blood clot in his leg broke off and traveled to his lung, causing a fatal pulmonary embolism. Dr. Alan Lumsden is a vascular surgeon with the Methodist DeBakey Heart Center here in Houston and says long airplane trips can lead to DVT.
"Sitting in an airplane, I'm sure everyone has had the experience, you take your shoes off, you go to get off the plane and it's not easy to get them back on because your ankles are swollen, that's very, very common. But if you get swelling of one leg and it's associated with pain in your calf, that's what we worry about."
Dr. Lumsden says although DVT is rare among most healthy people, precautionary exercises on long trips in the air or on the ground are a good idea.
"Ideally you get up and walk around and you automatically will then empty the veins out of your calf. But if you can't get up and walk around, then there's a series of exercises, just pointing your toe down, pulling your toes up, which essentially contracts your calf muscle, are the kind of exercises which are recommended."
Research indicates that many of the victims of DVT have an underlying condition that leads to blood clotting during periods of inactivity. Lumsden says symptoms that include leg swelling and soreness after a long trip should be diagnosed by a doctor immediately.
"I'd go to the emergency room and it's a very easy screening test. They get an ultrasound scan of your leg, there are no risks associated with doing that. An ultrasound is the mainstay for making this diagnoses. The ultrasound can see into these veins and see whether or not there's clot formed in them."
You can find out more about deep venous thrombosis on our website, KUHF.org.