What Are Some Treatment Options for Deep Vein Thrombosis?

Staff WriterLast Updated Jun 24, 2020 7:11:26 PM ET
49011403608 E27a19fa12 C Photo Courtesy: Nenad Stojkovic/Flickr

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a condition related to blood clots that requires immediate treatment. Knowing the symptoms is an important way to take charge of your health and get care as soon as you need it. And if you've been diagnosed with DVT, it’s normal to have some concerns about what to expect from treatment. While it's an emergency condition that needs urgent care for the most successful outcome, treatments are effective, allowing you to regain your quality of life and potentially avoid more serious medical complications.

What Is Deep Vein Thrombosis?

To understand DVT, it helps to first learn about blood clots. When blood clots, it forms into a clumpy mass that has a gel-like consistency, turning into a semisolid state from its typical liquid state. Blood often clots around injuries, such as wounds, as part of the healing process. Normally, these clots dissolve after some time, meaning they break back down and your body reabsorbs them.

DVT is a condition that occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein in your body. Deep veins are the opposite of superficial veins, which are close to the surface of your skin. Your legs have deep veins, and DVT often forms there. A DVT clot, unlike other surface clots, doesn’t dissolve back into your body after it forms. Because the clot is in a deep vein and doesn’t dissolve, it can block off the vein and subsequently keep blood from circulating properly around your body. 

Symptoms of DVT

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 50% of people who develop DVT show any symptoms. While DVT more commonly occurs in the legs, it can also form in arms. When DVT clots develop in upper extremities, they’re less likely to cause symptoms.

When symptoms present in lower-extremity DVT, they may include pain or swelling in one foot, ankle or leg or a feeling of warmth in the area where the clot is located. The skin on the affected leg may look red or patchy, and it may also turn a bluish color. Severe pain and cramping are also symptoms of DVT.

If you have upper-extremity DVT, it’s less likely that you’ll experience symptoms. If you do, these typically include neck, arm or shoulder pain accompanied by swelling and weakness. The skin on your arm may also change colors, similarly to the way it does when DVT affects a leg vein.

If you suddenly experience any of these symptoms, it's best not to ignore them. Contact your doctor immediately. If you don’t get treatment, you’re at risk of developing another potentially life-threatening condition called pulmonary embolism.

More About Pulmonary Embolism

One very serious complication of DVT is what’s called a pulmonary embolism. This can occur if you don’t get treatment for DVT in one of your limbs. As the clot sits in your veins, a small piece of the clot — called an embolus — can break off. It travels to your veins and through your heart, ending up in your lungs where it blocks another vein. This reduces the blood flowing to your lungs, which in turn limits the blood flowing to your heart and to the rest of your body. In some cases, this can result in death.

It's critical to make an appointment to see your doctor if you have beginning signs of DVT. However, if you experience rapid pulse, fainting or dizziness, shortness of breath or chest pain and discomfort along with DVT symptoms, then you should immediately seek emergency treatment.

DVT Treatments

Before you're diagnosed, your doctor will begin by asking you about your symptoms, and they’ll look for any physical signs that you’re experiencing DVT. Depending on the symptoms you’re having, your doctor will perform several tests before diagnosing DVT.

You may have an ultrasound, which is an imaging test that uses sound waves from a machine to help the doctor see your veins and any potential clots. You’ll likely have a blood test to check for levels of a substance called D-dimer, which is present in most people who have DVT. Other imaging tests you undergo may include MRIs, CT scans or venography, which involves injecting dye into your veins and taking an X-ray that can show where a clot is located.

Once your doctor has diagnosed DVT, you’ll begin treatment. Treatments for this condition aim to keep the clot from growing, moving or causing a pulmonary embolism. You may receive different medications depending on how severe the clot is. Medicines called “clot busters” can immediately break up the clot; your doctor will place an IV line directly into the clot to deliver this medication in a highly targeted way. Clot busters are reserved for clots that present the most danger of causing an embolism or those that don’t respond to other medication.

If your clot is less severe, you’ll likely take blood thinners. These are drugs that make it more difficult for your blood to clot. They don’t eliminate existing clots, but they keep those clots from growing.

In some cases, you may not be able to take medications to thin your blood or break up the clot. Instead, your doctor may opt to do a surgical procedure to place a small filter inside one of the larger veins in your abdomen. These small, mesh-like filters can catch an embolus that breaks loose and prevent it from reaching your lungs.

There are also some lifestyle changes you can make that may reduce your chances of getting DVT in the future. DVT often happens if you don't move around enough, such as when you're on bedrest or you've been sitting for a long period on a plane flight. Try to get moving as soon as you're off bedrest, or, if you spend a lot of time seated, get up once an hour and walk around. You can also wear compression stockings, which apply pressure to the tissues in your legs to help improve your circulation and lessen your chances of developing a clot.

Resource Links:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/deep-vein-thrombosis/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20352563

https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/when-a-clot-interferes-with-blood-flow

https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/thromboembolism-deep-vein-thrombosis-and-pulmonary-embolism-a-to-z

https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/blood-clots/basics/definition/sym-20050850

https://www.hematology.org/education/patients/blood-clots