Date: April 1st, 2015
Venous thromboembolism (VTE) is the third most common cardiovascular illness in the U.S. and includes deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE).
VTE occurs in the following manner: A blood clot develops in a deep vein in the body—usually within the muscles of the leg or pelvis. That’s deep vein thrombosis (DVT). When those blood clots break free, they can travel through the circulatory system to the lungs and lodge in a main artery or arteries, blocking blood flow. That is called a pulmonary embolism (PE). This blockage can cause high blood pressure in the lungs, and as a result the heart has to pump harder than usual and may enlarge, and eventually fail, from being overworked.
Forty percent of the time, a DVT will develop into a PE, and, if left untreated, one in 10 PEs lead to death within 30 days. As you can see, it’s a serious condition.
So, how do you know if you’re at risk and if you have a DVT or PE? Look below for information on risk factors, signs, diagnosis, treatment, and more--and read our Living with VTE brochure to get an in-depth look at the condition.
Blood clots in the veins can form anywhere the blood doesn’t circulate, or move, properly. Many factors can make a person more likely to develop a DVT or PE including:
- Surgery, serious inflammation and inflammatory disorders, cancer, and use of a central venous catheter
- Lack of motion because of being hospitalized, on extended bed rest, or in a leg cast
- Older age (in fact people ages 85 and older are 15 times more likely to have a VTE than people ages 45-54)
- Pregnancy and the four months after delivery
- Use of certain medications like birth control and hormone replacement therapy
- Inherited or acquired clotting disorders
- Family history
- Being overweight or obese
Deep Vein Thrombosis
Symptoms for a DVT can include:
• Pain or tenderness
• Warmth in the swollen area
• Red or discolored skin
If you have any of these symptoms, be sure to discuss them with your health care professional right away. However, keep in mind that DVT can occur without any symptoms.
If a PE goes untreated, it can quickly lead to death, so early recognition is key. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms of PE:
• Unexplained shortness of breath
• Pain in your chest, back, or side that is made worse with deep breathing or coughing
• Rapid breathing
• Coughing up blood
• Rapid heartbeat
If you suspect you have either condition, be sure to see a health care professional right away. He or she will not only want to hear about your symptoms, but will likely use one or more of the following methods to make a diagnosis:
• Clinical decision scores—Different scoring tools evaluate your symptoms, risk factors, and medical history to better estimate your risk and determine if you need additional testing.
• Compression ultrasonography (sometimes called a “Doppler” or “Duplex” study)—This is the most commonly used tool and is a noninvasive procedure that uses imaging to look for clots in veins.
• Computed tomography (CT) venography—Radioactive dye is injected into the vein and allows an X-ray to be taken of your veins.
• Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—This machine produces detailed images of the inside of your body using magnetic imaging. This gives informative images of the body and can find DVTs.
If you have been diagnosed, your health care professional will make a treatment plan based on the type and severity of your VTE. Here are some of the treatment options you may undergo.
Breaking Up the Clot
In some cases a pulmonary embolism is immediately life threatening and your health care professional may give you a “clot busting” medicine—also referred to as thrombolytic therapy—to quickly dissolve your blood clots. A procedure may also be necessary to break up the clot and increase blood flow around it.
Preventing Growth of the Clot
If breaking up the clot isn’t necessary, you will still likely be put on an anticoagulant medication, or “blood thinner,” to keep the blood clot from growing.
Once the blood clot is treated, the next treatment goal is to keep clots from happening again, or recurring. The risk of VTE happening again is highest in the following three months, so your health care professional will likely keep you on an oral anticoagulant during that time. Continuation of the anticoagulant after that time period will be determined by the cause of your VTE.
To learn more about VTE, DVT, and PE, check out the resources below and be sure to share them with others who may be at risk.
Take an online quiz that tests what you’ve learned about VTE.
Watch this animated “pocket film” entitled Living with VTE and Preventing Deadly Blood Clots that offers a quick and accessible overview of causes, symptoms, and treatments in a unique format. A Spanish version is also available.