Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a serious condition in which a thrombus, or blood clot, develops within a deep vein, usually in a leg. These clots can travel through the bloodstream to the brain, heart or lungs, potentially causing a life-threatening event. DVT affects approximately 300,000 adults per year, approximately half of whom have no symptoms.

Causes of deep vein thrombosis

  • Trauma to the vein's inner lining from surgery, serious injury, inflammation or an immune response
  • Slow or sluggish blood flow caused by lack of movement for long periods of time, such as sitting on an airplane or in a car for many hours, or after surgery
  • Having blood that is thicker than normal, the result of genetic conditions that increase blood's tendency to clot

Symptoms of deep vein thrombosis

  • Swelling of the leg or along a vein in the leg
  • Pain or tenderness in the leg
  • Increased warmth or redness along with the swelling or tenderness in the leg
  • Shortness of breath or chest pain if the clot travels to the lungs

Risk factors for DVT

  • A history of a previous deep vein thrombosis
  • Inherited blood disorders
  • Use of birth control pills
  • Pregnancy and the first six weeks after giving birth
  • Recent or ongoing treatment for cancer
  • Older age
  • Trauma
  • Varicose veins

What to expect at your medical exam

Your vascular surgeon will try to determine if you are suffering from DVT, as well as to recommend the best method of treatment.

Your vascular surgeon will conduct a physical examination and ask you questions about your general health, medical history and symptoms. You will be asked to describe your symptoms, where they occur and how often. After your exam, if your vascular surgeon suspects you have DVT, one or more diagnostic tests may be ordered.

Diagnostic tests

Several tests assist in the diagnosis of DVT. The most commonly performed is a duplex ultrasound, which is noninvasive and painless. Other tests may include:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MR)
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Venography

Treatment options

Because of its life-threatening nature, it is imperative to quickly diagnose and treat acute deep vein thrombosis. The most common and effective treatment is anticoagulation (thinning of the blood).

The duration of anticoagulation depends on many factors. Treatment may last three to six months or longer. In advanced cases where a blood clot is blocking an artery, a doctor may inject a clot-dissolving drug into the artery at the point of the clot to break it up. Known as thrombolytic therapy, this treatment can actually dissolve the clot. Your vascular surgeon will decide which option is best for you.