Serena Williams may be at the top of her game, but in 2017, she was taken down by a fierce enemy when she was treated for a pulmonary embolism (PE) shortly after an emergency C-section. She had previously had another PE in 2011. Doctors say that a series of surgeries and long flights could have caused a clot in her leg, which traveled up into her lungs blocking blood flow.
Most of us associate blood clots with major surgeries, smoking or the elderly, but it can strike anyone—even professional athletes like Serena. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the precise number of people at risk is unknown, but it estimates nearly 900,000 Americans could be affected by blood clots each year.
There are two types of life-threatening blood clots, also called venous thromboembolism (VTE):
- Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) is a clot in a deep vein of the leg, arm or other large veins. When a clot forms in a blood vessel, it can clog the vessel and keep blood from getting where it needs to go. When that happens, the fluids back up and cause swelling and pain.
- Pulmonary Embolisms (PE) occurs when one of those clots breaks free and travels to the lungs, blocking some or all of the blood supply.
Although VTE can be fatal, Gregory Golden, DO, pulmonologist with Banner Health Clinic, said in most cases it can be preventable. In our recent conversation, Dr. Golden shared risk factors and how best to help prevent a VTE from occurring.
Who’s at Greatest Risk?
Typically, clotting is a good thing. It’s our body’s natural protective response when a blood vessel is injured. They can also occur, however, when blood circulation is poor. Dr. Golden said the elderly, those over age 60, are at the highest risk, but it can happen at any age. Other risk factors include:
- A history of blood clotting disorders: “If there is a family history, particularly multiple cases, you should get tested,” Dr. Golden warned.
- Hormone replacement or hormone-based birth controls: The risk is highest when first starting these, because hormonal changes can cause blood cells to bind together more readily.
- Injury to a deep vein
- Recent surgery
- Smoking, particularly if you’re overweight
- Cancer treatments
- Lack of movement or extended sitting: For example, if you are on a long flight (8+ hours) your risk can increase, so make sure you move around.
- Pregnant or six weeks postpartum
- If you’ve already had a blood clot: “About 30% of people who’ve had a blood clot will have it again,” Dr. Golden said.
How Can I Prevent VTE?
“There aren’t many things you can do to prevent a blood clot from occurring, but there are preventive things you can do to help lower your risk,” Dr. Golden said. “The best things you can do are make sure you get regular checkups, stay active, maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid smoking and sitting for extended periods of time.”
Dr. Golden also suggested tips for the following high-risk situations:
- For Travel: If you know you’ll be sitting on a plane or in a car for a while, stand up often and stretch your legs. Make sure you wear loose clothing. Drink lots of water and avoid alcohol. Consider wearing compression stockings.
- While Pregnant: Due to hormone changes during and after pregnancy, you are at a higher risk. Make sure you stay hydrated, keep active and avoid long periods of sitting. “Most importantly, for the sake of your baby, since DVT can be so dangerous to the baby, err on the side of caution and go to your doctor to get checked if you are concerned,” Dr. Golden said.
- After Surgery: The risk of blood clots for those admitted to the hospital is higher than among the general population. This is mostly due to the long periods of immobility after a surgery or accident. To prevent blood clots, make sure you are fitted with an inflatable compression device after surgery and walk as soon as recommended by your doctor to decrease your risk. You may also be given an anticoagulant as well.
“If you are concerned about your potential risk for a blood clot or are experiencing symptoms, schedule an appointment with a pulmonologist or hematologist,” Dr. Golden said.