Understanding Blood Clots

Up to 600,000 people in the United States are affected by venous thromboembolism each year, a disease that includes deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE). 100,000 to 300,000 deaths from blood clots occur each year, which is greater than the total number of people who lose their lives each year to AIDS, breast cancer, and motor vehicle crashes combined.

Blood clots can be serious complications of orthopedic surgeries like joint replacement or surgery to repair knee, hip, or other joints. Here’s how to recognize and minimize your risk of blood clots.

Blood clot formation, also known as coagulation, is your body’s normal response in certain situations. For example, if you cut your hand or finger, a blood clot forms in the injured area to stop the bleeding and help heal your cut. These types of blood clots are not only beneficial, but help prevent excessive blood loss in the event that you are badly hurt.

A blood clot can occur in just about any part of the body. Blood clots are usually harmless. Sometimes, though, blood clots can be dangerous. For example, undergoing major surgery can make you more susceptible to developing dangerous blood clots in areas such as the lungs or brain. Blood clots are a serious complication that surgery patients can experience during and after the procedure. While a blood clot that forms in the leg is a serious condition, blood clots can quickly become life-threatening conditions if they move to the brain (embolic/ischemic stroke) or the lungs (pulmonary embolism). These complications are very serious and must be treated quickly to minimize the damage caused to the body or the brain.

A blood clot is more likely to form during or after surgery than it is during your routine day to day life. There are multiple reasons for this, but one major cause is lying still on the operating table for an extended period of time. This inactivity makes it easier for blood to clot, because you aren’t moving blood through your body as quickly or as forcefully as you typically are, during your procedure.

DVT is the most common kind of blood clot people have after surgery for a total hip replacement, total knee replacement, or a broken hip. Most people who have one of these major surgeries are less active for several days or weeks after the surgery. This can cause blood flow to slow down, which increases the risk for a blood clot. People with a DVT may not have any symptoms and may not know they have one.

As many as 4 people out of 10 who do not receive medicine to prevent blood clots develop a DVT within 1 or 2 weeks of having major hip or knee surgery.

Some people are inactive after their surgery because they are in pain, very sick, or unable to walk. For these patients, the risk of clot formation is increased after the procedure has finished; as well as during surgery because they continue to be inactive.

The type of surgery you are having can also increase the risk of having blood clots after the procedure. If your surgery requires your arteries or veins to be cut or repaired, the risk of a blood clot is higher because your body works to stop bleeding by forming clots.

If you are having a surgery where your heart is stopped, typically a heart bypass surgery (CABG), your risk of a blood clot is also increased.

Your own personal, medical and social history may also contribute to clot formation after surgery. For example, if you are a smoker, you are at higher risk for the formation of blood clots than the average individual, even without having surgery.

Research found that people with congestive heart failure (a condition in which the heart is not able to pump enough blood through the body) were at a greater risk for having a blood clot after major hip or knee surgery.

Blood clot risk depends on risk factors – such as age, weight, length of surgery. The risk is present until you are walking normally – about 5-7 days. For higher risk people, dividing the surgery and giving heparin after surgery reduces the risk. Taking steps for the prevention and treatment of blood clots after hip and knee replacement surgery is an important part of your recovery. Joint replacement patients are at highest risk for developing a DVT two to ten days after surgery, and remain at risk for approximately three months.

Discuss the risk with your surgeon and follow his/her advice. Getting up and moving during your recovery from surgery is one of the best ways to prevent blood clots. Staying well hydrated by drinking ample amounts of water can also reduce your risk of forming clots. You should also know the signs and symptoms of a blood clot.

A pulmonary embolism can be fatal. If you experience any of these symptoms, call 9-1-1 or seek immediate medical attention.

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics.Listen to Glenn, every Saturday at 9:00am (EST) on www.900amwurd.com, and Sundays at 8:30am (EST) on www.wdasfm.com. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com