You just came back from vacation after a six-hour drive. You stopped only once to use the bathroom.
Now you have a throbbing pain in your calf, and the surrounding skin has a reddish tinge.
You also detect some swelling in your leg.
Could it be a blood clot?
A High Toll
Blood clots cause 100,000 to 300,000 deaths every year, which is more than the number of lives lost to breast cancer, motor vehicle accidents and AIDS combined, according to the National Blood Clot Alliance, a health advocacy group.
Another 600,000 non-fatal cases of blood clots are reported every year, with 60 percent occurring in the legs and 40 percent in the lungs, the group said.
Risk factors include:
- Prolonged bed rest due to an illness
- Certain chronic illnesses
- Inactivity during a long flight or ride
- Genetic factors
“Feel free to discuss these and other potential risks with your doctor or health care provider,” Dr. Lee said.
Two Types of Clot
There are two types of blood clots. A clot that forms in a deep vein, usually in the legs, is called deep vein thrombosis. Warning signs include:
- Swelling in a leg (or arm)
- The area is warm to the touch
- Pain or tenderness
- A red or blue discoloration
- Feeling you’ve got a cramp or pulled muscle
If you have a clot deep in a vein, it could break off and travel to your lung, resulting in a pulmonary embolism. This could be fatal. Signs to watch for include:
- Unexpected shortness of breath
- Sharp chest pain that may worsen with deep breaths
- An unexplained cough, perhaps with bloody mucus
- A rapid heart beat
If you experience these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
Blood Clots and Travel
Why does a long airplane flight or car ride pose a potential risk?
“Any time you are physically incapacitated or idle for a period, it diminishes blood flow, which can lay the groundwork for a clot,” explained Dr. Lee. “That is why doctors and hospitals take measures to prevent blood clots when you are admitted or having surgery.”
“It’s also why you should walk up and down the aisle of a plane once an hour on a multi-hour flight,” she said. “And if you’re driving a long distance, you should stop once an hour, get out and walk for a couple of minutes.”
Carilion Clinic vascular surgeon Ashish Raju, M.D., agrees. He recommends preventive measures even for travelers without pre-existing conditions and risk factors. In addition to getting up and walking regularly, he recommends wearing compression stockings for all adults traveling long distances—regardless of their fitness level.
"I wear them in the OR, and I have healthy legs," he said. "If you can tolerate them, they're an effective measure to take."
Unfortunately, anyone can be subject to a blood clot given certain conditions—even active teenagers or young adults. That's why knowing where you can find care is an essential part of travel planning. Our team recommends knowing where the urgent care centers are along your route. Carilion Clinic's newest VelocityCare location is located at a truck stop off of I-81 in Raphine, Virginia. It is there to respond to the needs of local residents as well as travelers and long-distance drivers.
We also need more public awareness of blood clots and how they can develop. Studies show that less than one in four people are aware of the warning signs.
You, however, don’t have to be one of them.