There are many reasons you may need a joint replacement or orthopedic surgery. Your arthritis may have reached the point that you can’t walk your dog as far as you like. You may not be able to swing a golf club or maintain the garden you’ve tended for years. Or you may have suffered an injury to a joint that now requires surgery.
Undergoing orthopedic surgery can get you back on your feet and allow you to enjoy your everyday activities again. But sometimes, after orthopedic surgery, you can develop a dangerous blood clot.
Blood clots that develop in your legs, called deep vein thrombosis (DVT), can cause chronic swelling, pain and itching. And blood clots that travel to your lungs, called pulmonary embolisms (PE), can be life threatening. So, it’s essential to try to reduce your risk of developing blood clots after surgery.
According to the National Blood Clot Alliance, even when you take the right steps to reduce the risk of blood clots, you have about a 3% chance of developing DVT and a 1.5% chance of developing PE. These conditions can mean you need to be re-admitted to the hospital after surgery and could even lead to death.
Jason Lowe, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with Banner – University Medicine Orthopedics Clinic in Tucson, answered some questions about who’s at higher risk for these blood clots and what you can do to reduce your risk.
Who is at risk for blood clots after orthopedic surgery?
“Blood clots could strike anyone,” Dr. Lowe said. But for some groups of people, the odds are higher. Your risk increases if you:
- Have had blood clots in the past
- Have a close family member who has had them
- Are overweight or obese
- Are pregnant
- Are over age 40
- Have a specific blood or vein disorders or certain types of cancer
- Take medications such as birth control or hormone therapy
Certain types of surgeries can also increase the risk of blood clots. The chance of developing blood clots is higher if you need:
- Hip replacement
- Knee replacement
- Surgery to repair a fractured bone from your pelvis to ankle
- Longer surgical procedures
- Certain types of anesthesia
What are the warning signs of blood clots?
Clots are most likely to develop in the first week or two after your surgery, but you’re at risk for about three months.
You won’t always notice symptoms of a blood clot, but if you develop a blood clot you might see:
- New swelling in your lower leg that doesn’t go down when you elevate your leg
- New pain or tenderness in your calf or thigh
- Warm, red or discolored skin on your leg
- Protruding veins
If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your surgeon’s office right away.
You may also notice shortness of breath, chest pain or pain when you breathe. With these symptoms, seek emergency care immediately.
What can you do before and after surgery to help prevent blood clots?
Since smoking and excessive body weight increase your chances for blood clots, quitting smoking and losing weight before surgery can help reduce your risk.
After surgery, you should take any blood thinner medicines your doctor prescribes. “Even with the best medical care, some people still develop blood clots after orthopedic surgery,” Dr. Lowe said. “But research has found that many different blood thinners can help prevent blood clots.”
When it comes to movement and mobility you should follow the advice of your health care team. Moving as much as possible after your orthopedic surgery can help keep blood clots at bay. Your doctor may recommend lifting your legs, moving your feet in circles or tightening and massaging your leg muscles.
How are blood clots treated?
Despite best efforts, you might still develop a blood clot after orthopedic surgery. For DVT or PE, your doctor will most likely prescribe drugs that thin your blood and break up clots. If you have DVT, it may also be recommended that you wear compression stockings. If you can’t take medication, your doctor might place a filter in a vein in your abdomen instead. That way, if a blood clot breaks free in your leg it can’t reach your lung. If you have a large clot in your lung, your doctor might remove it with a catheter that can reach it through your blood vessels.
The bottom line
Blood clots sometimes develop after orthopedic surgery, but you can take steps to reduce your risk. If you would like to connect with an orthopedic surgeon who can help you evaluate the benefits and risks of surgery, reach out to Banner Health.