How do avoid blood clots and DVT while flying or driving?

DVT blood clot aeroplane travelingRisks to your vein health increase with travel. Potential complications which can result from prolonged travel include:

  • Leg and ankle swelling
  • Calf muscle cramping
  • Spider veins
  • Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), a potentially life-threatening blood clot in the leg

The increased risks are primarily a function of:

  • immobilization – not moving your legs for long periods of time, particularly in a cramped position like today’s economy aeroplane seats
  • dehydration – decreased water circulating in your system, which occurs quickly in an aeroplane where dry air is recirculated causing people to lose water through respiration without realizing it

For short flights and car trips (under three hours), the scientific evidence says there’s a very little increased risk of blood clots, so you should focus on making sure you get off the plane without puffy ankles and an increased risk of spider veins and cramps.  Appropriate measures for these short flights include:

  • Moving your legs and doing calf pumping exercises during the trip. Try pumping each leg, like you are stepping on the accelerator in the car, 10-20 times each hour. This increases blood flow throughout the leg using the calf muscle pump, reducing the likelihood of cramping and swelling.
  • Getting up and walk every other hour or so if possible. Even a walk down the aisle of a plane or a quick pit stop on a car trip may be the difference between your legs feeling refreshed at the end of the trip and not.
  • Avoiding alcohol and caffeine, if possible. Both of these act like diuretics, a class of medications which increase urination, potentially causing dehydration. Bring a reusable water bottle with you to the airport or fork over the $3.50 for a fresh bottle of water in the terminal before going on board.

If you can afford it, springing for the extra-room seats so you can stretch out your legs and move more freely.

For flights over three hours, the potential increase in risk for DVT is measurable and, for flights over six hours, that risk increases substantially.

  • In addition to the recommendations for shorter flights, consider purchasing a pair of calf-high compression socks. Even low strength compression socks, with a rating of 8-15 mmHg (a measure of how tight they will fit), will provide a reduction in DVT risk over not wearing them. Support hose and similar products are NOT compression socks and do not confer the same benefit. Compression socks – though they just look like tight socks – are actually medical devices, approved and regulated by the FDA to deliver specific amounts of pressure to particular parts of the leg, ankle and foot. These are readily available in any medical supply store and most major pharmacies as well as online. They cost anywhere from $12 for a basic pair, perfectly good enough for flying, up to $100 for a custom-fit sock. Most medical supply stores have someone on hand who will expertly measure you for size, so you don’t have to guess.
  • Compression socks, when worn for any period of prolonged sitting or standing, tend to leave the legs feeling refreshed like you just got out of bed instead of standing or sitting for hours on end. I – and many surgeons I know – wear them on days where I’m going to be doing multiple procedures, standing around for hours in a row.
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