Blood clots, when blood thickens and clumps together, are normal, healthy and potentially a literal life saver when they stop bleeding. But they can also be very problematic, even deadly, when they form when and where they aren’t needed.
Clots sometimes form inside of blood vessels without an apparent injury or don’t dissolve naturally. These clots can be very dangerous, especially if they occur in a major vein of the leg, arm or pelvis. Known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), these clots prevent adequate blood flow and can cause painful swelling and may lead to complications or even death.
In addition, a clot in a vein may detach from where it formed and travel through the veins to the lungs where it wedges itself, preventing adequate blood flow. This is called a pulmonary (lung) embolism (PE) and can be very dangerous.
According to the American Society of Hematology, DVT and PE, together, affect about 900,000 Americans each year and kill up to 100,000 people annually.
“It is very important that people educate themselves on the risks of DVT and PE,” says Dr. Paul Chemello, an Advocate Medical Group family medicine physician on staff at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill. “Many people have no sense of the signs and symptoms of clots and just how devastating they can be to their health.”
Some people are more prone to a DVT than others, he adds, so it’s crucial to be aware of risk factors such as prolonged sitting, pregnancy, birth control pills, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, family history of clots and smoking.
Dr. Chemello stresses knowing the warning signs of DVT so that you can get the medical attention you need to avoid serious issues.
Those warning signs include:
- Swelling in one limb
A puffy leg or arm is one of the most common signs of a DVT, Dr. Chemello says. Blood clots can block the flow of blood in an arm or leg. The blood can pool behind the clot, causing swelling.
“Unfortunately, many people overlook leg swelling if they get large or stiff legs when they fly, or during periods of immobility,” he says. “But, definitely be on alert if a swollen limb comes on quickly, particularly if it is also painful.”
- Leg or arm pain
Usually, DVT pain comes with other symptoms like swelling, but pain can be the only sign as well.
“Pain from a clot can be mistaken for a pulled muscle or cramp,” says Dr. Chemello, “This makes the situation much more dangerous, as it usually goes undiagnosed.”
DVT pain tends to strike when you’re walking or when you flex your foot upward. A persistent cramp, especially if the skin near it is discolored or warm, signals a trip to the doctor.
- Redness on your skin
“Maybe, you see some bruising, but it’s more likely you’ll see redness, accompanied by tenderness or your skin feeling warm to the touch,” says Dr. Chemello. “If this happens, I would recommend checking with your doctor right away.”
- Chest pain
“>Heart attacks and pulmonary embolisms share similar symptoms, says Dr. Chemello. He explains that PE pain oftentimes is very sharp and “stabbing,” whereas heart attacks pain tends to radiate out from the upper body.
“But the big difference will usually be your breathing,” he says. “PE pain gets steadily worse with every breath you take, particularly deep breaths.”
Dr. Chemello stresses that either event is an emergency, so call 911 immediately.
- Shortness of breath or a racing heart
If a clot makes it to your lungs and causes a PE, says Dr. Chemello, it will slow down the oxygen flow to your body and brain.
“When you are low on oxygen, your heart rate increases to try to make up for the shortage,” he explains. “A flutter feeling in your chest or difficulty with deep breaths could signal that you have a PE clot.”
Someone suffering a PE might also feel faint or even pass out, explains Dr. Chemello. Seek medical attention if you experience these things, he says, especially if any of the symptoms occur very suddenly.
- Unexplained cough
A persistent cough can be sign of many potential health concerns. But, if you are also experiencing chest pain, a rapid heartbeat or shortness of breath, says Dr. Chemello, it could be a PE. He advises calling your doctor or even making a trip to the ER if you are experiencing any combination of these symptoms.