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What is Deep Vein Thrombosis?

Dr. Charles Raker  

Charles Raker, MD, is an interventional radiologist at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix.

Question: I was recently hospitalized for several weeks and have noticed some swelling and discomfort in my right leg. A friend mentioned that I might have a condition called deep vein thrombosis. Is this possible, and if so, how is it treated?

Answer: The symptoms you describe could indicate deep vein thrombosis, which can be caused by long-term immobility, such as hospitalization or sitting for long periods; smoking, birth control pills or illnesses that cause blood to coagulate quickly; or trauma to the vein due to a fracture or bruise.  To understand how deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, occurs, it’s important to first explain how blood travels through the legs.  The legs have two types of vein systems – superficial veins lie just under the skin and can be seen from the surface, and deep veins are located within the muscles of the legs and carry blood to the heart and lungs.  A blood clot, or thrombus, can form in the deep veins, causing noticeable swelling and discomfort.  If that clot breaks apart and a piece of it travels through the heart and into the lungs, it can be life-threatening. 

DVT is diagnosed using ultrasound to identify the existence of a clot and evaluate its size.  In many cases, anticoagulant medications, such as Coumadin and Heparin, are given to the patient to thin the blood and break apart the clot.  However, patients who are highly symptomatic, have health conditions that prevent the use of blood thinners, or have a clot too large to treat with these medicines may require a more aggressive option called interventional therapy. An interventional radiologist performs a procedure to rapidly improve symptoms and prevent long-term vein damage, which is done by making a pen-tip size nick in the skin behind the knee and placing special catheters into the vein to break up, dissolve and remove the clot. 

Regardless of which therapy is used, it is critical that DVT be diagnosed and managed quickly because of the substantial risk to the patient if a blood clot goes untreated.  If you suspect you might have DVT, please consult with your physician about the diagnosis and treatment options available to you.

Reviewed March 2010 

Page Last Modified: 03/01/2015
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