Small problem can balloon

Consequences of blood clots in deep veins can seem sudden and be severe if not caught early

Consequences of blood clots in deep veins can seem sudden and be severe if not caught early

March 14, 2005|by Marie Gilbert/Staff Writer

Paula Webb thought she had pulled a muscle.

The pain in her upper left leg was bothersome, but she was sure it would be better the next day.

Instead, the pain worsened and with the pain there was swelling.

One week later, her condition had become so bad she was sick to her stomach and was literally dragging her leg whenever she tried to walk.

"I knew this was something more than a charley horse," the 48-year-old Boonsboro resident said.

Her physician took one look at her swollen leg and diagnosed it immediately.

Webb had deep-vein thrombosis, or DVT, a condition resulting from the formation of a blood clot (thrombus) inside a deep vein, usually located in the calf or thigh. It occurs when the blood clot either partially or completely blocks the flow of blood in the vein..

Deep-vein thrombosis is a common but serious medical condition that occurs in about 2 million Americans each year. More people suffer from DVT than heart attack or stroke.


At Washington County Hospital, about 200 to 250 people are treated for DVT each year, said Cathy Ware, vascular care specialist at Washington County Hospital. Many incidents of DVT occur suddenly and without obvious symptoms.

"It's not like the flu. Often there are minimal signs," Ware said. "You may have some discomfort in the leg and some swelling. In fact, in about half of DVT incidents, there is little or no warning."

Webb said her encounter with DVT five years ago took her totally by surprise. "One day I was feeling fine; the next day my leg was sore and swollen."

Following her doctor's diagnosis, Webb was sent to Washington County Hospital, where an ultrasound was performed before doctors dissolved her clot with thrombolytic agents. Administered by intravenous infusion or directly into the clot via catheter, they target the fibrin mesh that binds clots together, causing it to disintegrate. She spent nine days at the hospital recuperating.

"I didn't know how serious my situation was," Webb recalled. "Later, I was told I had one of the worst cases of DVT the hospital had seen. I could have lost my leg - that's how bad it was. I consider myself very lucky."

Webb said she was at risk for deep-vein thrombosis because there is a history of blood clot disorders in her family.

"My paternal grandmother had a problem with blood clots," she said. "But I was young and didn't really pay attention to what she was dealing with. It was while I was recuperating that someone reminded me about my grandmother. This is something that runs in my family."

After her diagnosis, Webb said she urged her brothers and sisters, as well as her father, to be tested. They came through OK. She also made sure her two children were tested.

Other factors that increase the risk of developing DVT include: immobility; injuries, such as a blow to the leg, athletic injuries or surgery; infections and inflammatory diseases like systemic lupus, Crohn's disease or rheumatoid arthritis; pregnancy (often in the third trimester and immediately following delivery); oral contraceptives; cancer; smoking; obesity; and travel with prolonged sitting.

The outlook for patients with DVT is good, Ware explained. Many people, including Webb, are put on anticoagulants or blood thinners to prevent new blood clots from forming.

"When spotted early and properly cared for," she added, "DVT can resolve itself. When left untreated, it can cause severe complications. Some are fatal. You want to catch the clot before it breaks off and travels to the lung."

In addition to taking blood thinners, Webb said she must have her blood tested every other week.

"The testing just becomes part of my regular routine," she noted. "And it's worth it. It gives me peace of mind knowing everything is alright."

Her doctor also has recommended that she wear compression stockings to reduce swelling and decrease the pooling of blood.

"My only suggestion to others is to take notice of any pain or swelling in your legs," Webb said. "Don't dismiss it as a pulled muscle, especially if you have a family history of blood clots."

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