When you think of the risks associated with flying, images of bird strikes, catastrophic engine failures or terrorist hijackings may flash before your eyes. What you may not picture is your risk for something that’s much more likely to occur and that affects tens of thousands of people in this country each year. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) can lead to deadly complications and may strike as a result of prolonged physical immobility while flying. A DVT is a blood clot that develops in a deep vein, such as inside the leg. This blood clot can break away and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs, causing a blockage known as a pulmonary embolism (PE). It can happen to anyone of any race, age, or gender and cause severe injury or even death.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 Americans die of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolisms each year. Sudden death is the first symptom in about 25 percent of the cases. While most cases may not be linked to air travel, it is still a risk that passengers on long flights should be aware of. It is estimated that three to five percent of air travelers will develop clots, and that risk goes up if the passenger flies more than once in a four-week window.
It’s no revelation that airline seats in the coach cabin are cramped and downright uncomfortable. You usually sit for hours with your knees against the seat back in front of you with your feet bent strategically around your stowed carry-ons. Couple this with certain medical conditions and your risk for developing a DVT inches higher. Medical ailments or medication that affect blood flow or the body’s blood-clotting ability can put you at higher risk. Smokers, passengers with heart disease, people on oral contraceptives or women who are pregnant also run a greater risk of developing a DVT.
While most people may not notice any symptoms of DVT, those who do may experience pain or swelling in the affected area. In extreme cases, breathing problems or severe chest pain may be an indicator that a blot clot has moved into the lungs. In all of these cases, seek medical treatment immediately.
The good news is that you can reduce your risk for developing a DVT by taking some simple steps while traveling for more than four hours on a plane. Start your trip off right by wearing loose-fitting clothing. Stay hydrated since the dry air and low oxygen in the cabin can have a dehydrating effect. If the aisles are clear and the seat belt sign is off, get up and stretch your legs every two to three hours. While sitting, avoid crossing your legs at the ankles or knees. There are also a number of leg exercises you can perform while sitting in your seat. You can do foot pumps by raising and lowering your heels while keeping your toes on the floor. Switch that up and raise and lower your toes while keeping your heels on the floor. You can also lift your knees to your chest, one at a time, and hold for 15 seconds. Ankle circles are another way to keep the blood flowing in your legs and feet. Lift your foot off the floor and twirl it in a circular motion, alternating directions every 30 seconds.
These simple tricks can make your flight a little more comfortable and ensure that you get to your final destination while avoiding “economy class syndrome.” For more information about DVT, visit www.cdc.gov.