Venous thrombosis is a major health issue around the world, particularly for Baby Boomers and those over 60.
Each year, there are more than 30,000 thrombosis episodes in Australia alone, with more than 5,000 people dying as a result of a blood clot. That’s more people than those killed in car accidents or as a result of road accidents. The number is much higher in the United States, impacting 900,000 people each year and claiming 100,000 lives.
In simple terms, thrombosis occurs when there is a blood clot in a vein or artery. This blocks regular blood flow and can cause a range of health problems and even death. The lifetime risk of a person developing deep vein (venous) thrombosis is about 8 per cent, however, by the time a person is 80, they have a one in 100 chance of experiencing it.
The two most common types of thrombosis are venous thromboembolism, where a blood clot forms deep in the veins, and pulmonary embolism, where a clot travels and lodges in the lungs.
Speaking to Starts at 60, Associate Professor Huyen Tran explained that although it is a serious health concern, it can be hard to notice symptoms.
“It’s important to stress that the symptoms can be very non-specific, meaning that if you get these symptoms, they can be a blood clot, but you can easily dismiss them for something else,” Tran explained. “It does need medical evaluation if you develop some of them and you have risk factors.”
Those with deep vein thrombosis are likely to notice a painful, swollen, discoloured and achy limb. It’s common for one leg to become bigger than the other. In some cases, patients will develop deep vein thrombosis following trauma to their limb, while others will notice changes after surgery or following periods where they weren’t active for long periods of time.
“A combination of the risk factors plus some of those symptoms really warrants further medical evaluation,” Tran said.
In pulmonary embolism, the risk factors are similar, although patients may notice a different set of symptoms. These can range from shortness of breath and chest pain to coughing up blood, feeling dizzy and even collapsing. In rarer cases, people develop blood clots in unusual parts of the body such as the abdomen and neck. Those with pain or discomfort in these areas should seek medical treatment as soon as possible.
In addition to trauma and immobility, some patients on hormone replacement therapy can develop thrombosis, although it’s not as frequent as it used to be. While many people associate blood clots and thrombosis with air travel, it turns out it’s not as big a risk factor as people think it is.
“I thank airlines for the awareness of venous thrombosis but the evidence is that air travel is actually a very weak risk factor,” Tran said. “Your risk of having a blood clot in hospital is 100 times higher. In other words, we should be paying more attention to patients who’ve had symptoms after they’ve been to hospital, rather than them getting off an airplane.”
Weight gain and obesity is another risk factor, while maintaining a low BMI, keeping active and managing weight can help people avoid a clot. Outside of the hospital setting, the general risk of thrombosis is lower because people are keeping active and mobile. Things change in hospital because the routine is disrupted and people are spending a lot more time less active while they recovery from surgery and illness.
“The setting is very different in the hospital and when you’re in the hospital, we have procedures and guidelines in place to manage at-risk patients to minimise their risk of developing venous thrombosis,” Tran said. “Outside in the community, if they’re otherwise well and have never had blood clots before, then just keeping moving is the best thing people should do.”
When a patient is diagnosed, which usually occurs after a clinical assessment where they undergo a CT pulmonary angiogram or a ventilation and perfusion scan, health professionals will typically treat thrombosis with anticoagulation. Also known by the non-medical term of blood thinners, this process helps rebalance the clotting system. Health professionals also set up a rehabilitation program to get patients as fit and active as possible to avoid another clot.
If noticing any symptoms, it’s always advised to speak to a health professional as soon as possible, as blood clots can be deadly.
For more information about thrombosis, visit worldthrombosisday.org.