Blood clots: Symptoms, causes, prevention, when to see a doctor

Blood clots are common in people of all ages.

This week, Local 4 brought you the story of a Detroit woman, only 21-years-old, who almost died from a blood clot. (Read more here)

Many have been sharing their blood clot stories since the story aired on Thursday. To help with some of the questions, here's more information on blood clots, including warning signs, treatment and prevention, from the Mayo Clinic and Stop The Clot.

What are blood clots?

Blood clots are gel-like clumps of blood. They are beneficial when they form in response to an injury or a cut, plugging the injured blood vessel, which stops bleeding.

Some blood clots form inside your veins without a good reason and don't dissolve naturally. These may require medical attention, especially if they are in your legs or are in more critical locations, such as your lungs and brain. A number of conditions can cause this type of blood clot.

What causes blood clots?

Blood clots form when platelets (blood components) and plasma proteins thicken, forming a semisolid mass. This process may be triggered by an injury or it can sometimes occur inside blood vessels that don't have an obvious injury.

Once these clots form, they can travel to other parts of your body, causing harm. Factors and conditions that can cause troublesome blood clots, as well as serious conditions that are associated with blood clots, include:

  1. Antiphospholipid syndrome
  2. Arteriosclerosis / atherosclerosis
  3. Certain medications, such as oral contraceptives and hormone therapy drugs
  4. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
  5. Factor V Leiden
  6. Family history of blood clots
  7. Heart arrhythmias (heart rhythm problems)
  8. Heart attack
  9. Heart failure
  10. Obesity
  11. Peripheral artery disease
  12. Polycythemia vera
  13. Pregnancy
  14. Prolonged sitting or bed rest
  15. Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in an artery in the lung)
  16. Smoking
  17. Stroke
  18. Surgery

What are the Symptoms?

Deep Vein Thrombosis:

Signs and Symptoms

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occurs when a blood clot forms in one of the deep veins of your body, usually in your legs, but sometimes in your arm. The signs and symptoms of a DVT include:

  • Swelling, usually in one leg (or arm)
  • Leg pain or tenderness often described as a cramp or Charley horse
  • Reddish or bluish skin discoloration
  • Leg (or arm) warm to touch

These symptoms of a blood clot may feel similar to a pulled muscle or a “Charley horse,” but may differ in that the leg (or arm) may be swollen, slightly discolored, and warm.

Contact your doctor as soon as you can if you have any of these symptoms, because you may need treatment right away. If you need help finding a doctor, please click here.

Learn more about how a DVT is diagnosed here.

Pulmonary Embolism:

Signs and Symptoms

Clots can break off from a DVT and travel to the lung, causing a pulmonary embolism (PE), which can be fatal. The signs and symptoms of a PE include:

  • Sudden shortness of breath
  • Chest pain-sharp, stabbing; may get worse with deep breath
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Unexplained cough, sometimes with bloody mucus

Call an ambulance or 911 immediately for treatment in the ER if you experience these PE symptoms.

Learn more about how a PE is diagnosed here.

Should you see a doctor?

Seek emergency care if you experience:

  • Cough that produces bloody sputum
  • A fast heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness
  • Difficult or painful breathing
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Pain extending to your shoulder, arm, back or jaw
  • Sudden weakness or numbness of your face, arm or leg
  • Sudden difficulty speaking or understanding speech (aphasia)
  • Sudden changes in your vision

Consult your doctor if you develop these signs or symptoms in an area on an arm or leg:

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Pain

Can you prevent blood clots? 

Self-care measures

To reduce your risk of developing blood clots, try these tips:

  • Avoid sitting for long periods. If you travel by airplane, walk the aisle periodically. For long car trips, stop and walk around frequently.
  • Move. After you've had surgery or been on bed rest, the sooner you get up and move around, the better.
  • Drink plenty of fluids when traveling. Dehydration can contribute to the development of blood clots.
  • Change your lifestyle. Lose weight, lower high blood pressure, stop smoking and exercise regularly.

How are blood clots treated?

The prevention and treatment of blood clots primarily involves the use of anticoagulant medications or, as they are commonly referred to, “blood thinners.” While these medications do not actually “thin” the blood, they do slow the body’s ability to form new clots and keep existing clots from getting bigger.

Blood thinners are often administered in the hospital, particularly during the first 5 to 10 days following diagnosis, considered the most serious or acute phase of the condition. However, blood thinners may be initially prescribed for home use in individuals with suitable risk profiles. For many patients, at-home treatment with blood thinners may continue for weeks, months, or years following hospitalization to prevent clots from returning.

Follow-up care with blood thinners is a crucial part of your treatment. Be sure to always take your medication as prescribed, go to all appointments, and stay in regular communication with your healthcare provider. Always let your doctor know if you experience any blood clot symptoms and/or potential medication side effects. It’s also a good idea to know your test results throughout your treatment and provide your doctor with a list of the medicines you take to help monitor possible drug interactions. Likewise, be sure to ask any questions or discuss all of your concerns during your physician visits.

The following is an overview of the various categories of blood thinners and other treatments that should supplement the information provided by your doctor:

Anticoagulation Medications or Blood Thinners

The most commonly prescribed blood thinners are unfractionated heparin, low molecular weight heparin, warfarin, and direct oral anticoagulants. Click on the following links for information about each blood thinner:

Other Treatments

In addition to blood thinners, you may require other interventions, including: surgical procedures, implantable devices, or other medications and products. Click on the following links for more information about these treatments:

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