Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVTs) and Pulmonary Emboli (PEs)

Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) occurs when a blood clot, also known as a thrombus, forms inside a vein. The blood clot can partially or completely block the flow of blood through that vessel. The clot can also break free and travel to the lungs or the heart. A clot carried to the lungs or heart could potentially cause serious harm or be fatal.

What are the Risk Factors for DVT?

Anyone who:

  • has cancer
  • has recently had surgery
  • has recently suffered injury or trauma
  • has prolonged period of hospitalization or immobility
  • has had a previous DVT or has a family history of DVT
  • takes oral contraceptives (birth control pills) or hormone replacement therapy
  • has a clotting disorder
  • smokes tobacco
  • is obese
  • has an inflammatory disease such as Crohn’s disease

Why is Cancer a Risk Factor?

If you have cancer, you may be at a high risk for deep vein thrombosis (DVT) because the cancer, its treatment, and the presence of additional risk factors can result in your blood having a higher tendency to clot than it does normally. This increased tendency for the blood to clot is called hypercoagulation. One study showed that cancer patients were four times more likely to develop blood clots than the general population without cancer. That risk increases if you are being treated with chemotherapy.

Cancer treatment may trigger clot formation. For example, when chemotherapy agents kill cancer cells, they release substances that promote blood clotting. Surgery or chemotherapy can harm the walls of your blood vessels, which can start your blood coagulation processes.

What are the Symptoms of a DVT?

Often DVTs are “silent” and cause very few symptoms. Some of the symptoms at the site of the DVT may include:

  • pain
  • tenderness
  • swelling
  • discoloration
  • warmer than normal skin

If a DVT breaks off and travels to the lungs it can block the main artery that brings blood to your lungs, or one of its branches. This is called a pulmonary embolism (PE). Symptoms of a PE may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • feeling of anxiety
  • chest pain
  • heart racing/fast pulse
  • sweating
  • a bloody cough

If you have any of these symptoms, whether at the hospital or elsewhere, notify your doctor immediately or go to the local emergency room.

What is the Treatment for a DVT?

There are two types of medications that are used to treat DVTs. Anticoagulants decrease the clotting ability of the blood and help to prevent harmful clots from forming in the blood vessels. These medicines are sometimes called blood thinners, although they do not actually thin the blood. Thrombolytic therapy is a treatment used to break up clots inside your blood vessels. A clot- dissolving medication is injected into a blood vessel to deliver medications to break up the clot.

Surgery is an option for people who cannot take anticoagulants or who develop a pulmonary embolism (PE) during anticoagulation therapy. The physician will surgically remove the clot or insert a filter to keep the clot from traveling to the heart or lungs.

Is There Anything Else I Can Do to Prevent DVTs?

To reduce your risk, your doctor may instruct you to

  • elevate your legs during times when you are not moving
  • do leg exercises
  • wear special compression bandages.

Pulmonary Embolus

If a DVT breaks off and travels to the lungs it can block the main artery that brings blood to your lungs, or one of its branches. This is called a pulmonary embolism (PE). Call you doctor immediately or go to the nearest emergency room if you have any of the following symptoms of a pulmonary embolism:

  • sudden onset of shortness of breath
  • pain in the chest that is worse with a deep breath
  • feeling of anxiety
  • heart racing/fast pulse; sweating
  • sweating
  • coughing up phlegm with streaks of blood