Skip links and keyboard navigation

Deep vein thrombosis – know the risks and how to avoid it

Man sitting on airplane, wearing headphones.
Spending a long time sitting or lying down can increase the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis.

Sitting for hours in the cramped quarters of economy class: unless you’re lucky enough to be able to splash the cash for spacious seating, it’s the uncomfortable but inevitable price we pay for going overseas.

But have you ever wondered what all that confined sitting can do you to your body?

Sometimes referred to as ‘economy class syndrome’, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a potentially serious and often silent condition associated with long periods of immobility. What you may not realise is that you don’t need to be on a long-haul flight to get DVT. There are many situations where it can strike, and it can affect the young and old alike.

What causes deep vein thrombosis?

Deep vein thrombosis is a blood clot that occurs in a deep vein (not a vein near the skin’s surface). They are most common in the leg, but they can happen anywhere in our body.

Anything that slows down blood flow can cause deep vein thrombosis. That’s because movement helps to pump blood around our body – another great reason to stay active! When our movement is constricted, blood flow can slow down and the risk of a blood clot increases.

If a blood clot forms in the leg, it can potentially dislodge from the wall of the vein and travel to the lungs. If it’s a large clot, there’s a risk it could completely block the main artery to the lungs (known as a pulmonary embolism). This can be life-threatening.

A middle-aged woman sits on a couch and holds her calf muscle.

We often associate deep vein thrombosis with long distance travel, but it’s actually more common in situations where we’re bedridden or immobile, such as after surgery or fracture, or during an illness. Understanding our risk factors is important, as this plays a big role in the likelihood of developing deep vein thrombosis.

Some of the risk factors linked with deep vein thrombosis include:

  • family history of DVT
  • blood disorders like thrombophilia (40-60% of DVT’s)
  • previous history of DVT
  • fractures of the lower limb or hip
  • heart disease
  • cancer
  • being above a healthy weight
  • smoking
  • advancing age.

Women may be at increased risk if they:

  • are pregnant
  • have recently had a baby
  • are taking a high-dose oral contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy containing oestrogen.

Men are at increased risk of DVT if they take testosterone supplementation.

Some people can get deep vein thrombosis without having risk factors. One-quarter of all DVT cases have no obvious cause.

How to avoid deep vein thrombosis

Compression stockings may help reduce the risk of blood clots after surgery or during long periods of travel. Speak to your doctor about whether this is appropriate for you.

Break up long periods of sitting or lying down by standing, moving, and stretching when possible and appropriate. If you’re travelling, make sure you also do regular seated exercises and stretches. You might want to try setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to get up and move around regularly. Wear loose clothes and avoid sitting with your legs crossed. Remember to keep up your fluid intake to avoid dehydration.

Taking care of our general health – eating well, being active, and not smoking – can help reduce the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis.

An elderly hospital patient wearing compression stockings sits on the edge of a hospital bed.

DVT symptoms and when to seek help

Common symptoms of deep vein thrombosis include pain, swelling, red and warm skin, and tenderness in the affected area – usually the calf or thigh. Some people won’t experience symptoms.

Deep vein thrombosis is a serious condition, which is why early treatment is vital. If you think you have it, call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) or see your doctor or Nurse Practitioner without delay. Always call Triple Zero (000) in an emergency.

Last updated: 31 July 2019