5 Easy Ways To Prevent a Blood Clot In Your Legs
Charlie Horse or Blood Clot
Several years ago, my brother developed what he initially described as a “Charlie horse” in the back of his right leg. He had just returned from skiing in Colorado so he assumed that he must have injured himself at some point on the trip. The leg soreness lingered, however, and within a couple days, he noticed some mild swelling around his right ankle. He went to see a local orthopedic doctor, thinking he may have pulled a muscle. The doctor immediately ordered an ultrasound of the veins in his legs which showed a large blood clot, also known as deep vein thrombosis, or just DVT. The doctor started my brother on a blood thinner and within several days, he started to feel better, but he was still surprised and confused by his diagnosis.
My brother is a young, healthy, and physically active guy. He has no chronic diseases and takes no regular medications. Nobody in our family had ever gotten a blood clot, that we know of, and all of his genetic tests came back normal. So how did this happen?
The answer was over our heads…literally. When my brother returned home from Colorado, he took a 3-hour flight wherein he relaxed and enjoyed a couple cocktails. He spent hours in a seated position, knees bent at a 90-degree angle, breathing in dry air in a low-pressure environment. These factors combined to have a concentrating effect on his blood, making it thicker and more sluggish inside his veins. This slow-moving blood eventually started to solidify which resulted in a clot. This phenomenon is common enough that is has been referred to as “Traveler’s Thrombosis.”
What exactly is a blood clot?
A blood clot is a clump of blood cells, particles, and proteins that become inflamed and stick together to form a solid or semi-solid mass. This mass, or thrombus, can block the flow of blood through a vein causing a back-up of blood behind that point. Some blood clots break loose and travel through the veins to other areas of the body like the heart or lungs. These clots are called emboli and can cause serious health complications and even death.
So what could my brother have done to avoid developing a blood clot?
5 Ways to Prevent a Blood Clot
Adequate hydration is important in avoiding the development of a blood clot. My brother’s strenuous exercise on the mountain, coupled with the fact that he rarely stops for water breaks, likely caused some degree of dehydration even before he stepped on the plane. Drinking alcohol during the flight would have only dehydrated him more. He would have been better off just drinking water and saving the cocktails for home.
A lot of my patients ask about foods and supplements they can take to prevent blood clots and improve circulation. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough research on this topic for me to make those kinds of claims. I see them on other websites, but at best, eating things like cold-water fish (or taking an Omega 3 supplement) or avoiding foods high in saturated fat may promote better circulation and thereby give you a marginal edge in preventing blood clots. So, for now at least, my brother gets a free-pass in regards to his subpar diet on this trip. For more information on this topic, see my blog post about natural remedies to improve circulation, which is different than just preventing blood clots.
Compression socks are another useful tool to avoid development of a blood clot. My brother should have been wearing graduated, knee-high compression socks throughout the duration of his flight. Compression socks help prevent the pooling of blood that occurs when we are either seated or standing for prolonged periods of time.
Although my brother was never prescribed a “blood-thinner” prior to his DVT, some people are and taking those medications as prescribed is obviously critical in avoiding the formation of a blood clot. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have questions about whether you should take blood thinners like over-the-counter aspirin or prescription medications.
Finally, exercise and movement are important ways to help avoid blood clots. Yes, my brother had been very active in the days leading up to his fateful flight, but once he sat down on the plane, he almost completely stopped moving his legs. Deep veins of the legs rely largely on muscle contractions to force blood out of the legs and send it back to the heart for re-oxygenation. Obviously, we can’t always be walking about, which is particularly true if you’re on an airplane. But we can flex our ankles and knees, and if you paid for the extra leg room, you may even be able to stretch. I tell my patients to pretend they are pressing and releasing the brake pedal on their car. And don’t be shy about taking an extra trip to the airplane bathroom if it gets you another walk down the aisle.
These same tactics can be used outside of an airplane, too. Get up and take a walk around your office if you’ve been sitting at your desk for more than an hour. Make a few laps around the couch if you’re in the middle of bingeing your favorite TV series. When that ceremony, service, or meeting creeps into its second hour, discreetly “pump the brakes” to keep your blood moving. And in general, regular aerobic exercise reduces the risk of blood clots by improving overall circulation and whole-body health.
Now to be fair, not all blood clots are completely preventable. There’s a chance that my brother still would have gotten a DVT, even if he had taken all of my advice. But hydration, compression socks, and exercise are still your best tools to avoid developing a blood clot.
If you are concerned about developing a blood clot, or if blood clots run in your family, talk to your healthcare provider about ways to identify and reduce your risk of clotting. If you suspect you have a blood clot, seek medical attention immediately as some clots can cause life-threatening complications.