Blood clots can be silent killers; here’s how to avoid them
Last March, Michael Meyer purchased property in southeastern Colorado, more than 600 miles from Lawrence. Long car trips from Lawrence to Fort Garland and back became routine.
But little did he know that those trips were harmful to his health. Soon, the 65-year-old Meyer began to struggle during his routine workouts.
“I was getting out of breath a little bit faster than I had been, and didn’t know what it was,” he said.
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By August, his shortness of breath had become so severe that Meyer went to see an asthma and allergies doctor, who prescribed a long-term inhaler. Despite that, his symptoms continued to progress.
“The more trips, it just got worse,” said Meyer, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Eventually, he made an appointment with his primary care doctor, who referred him to Dr. Mitchell Tener, a pulmonologist at Lawrence Pulmonary Specialists.
“(Tener) didn’t think it was potentially blood clots because no one in my family had a history of it,” Meyer said. “And also, I wasn’t thinking of all the trips I’d made over that five-month period.”
Tener scheduled a CT scan and X-rays for the following week, but during the weekend, Meyer’s symptoms intensified.
“It didn’t take much exertion to drop me to my knees and make me wonder if I was ever going to be able to get enough oxygen,” Meyer said.
His wife was out of town, so Meyer asked his neighbor to drive him to the emergency room at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. By the time he arrived, Meyer said, he could barely stand up for the CT scan and X-rays.
“I told them, ‘I have to sit down between these X-rays and catch my breath,'” he remembered.
The tests showed Meyer had developed blood clots, known as deep vein thrombosis, in his right leg.
“Pieces were breaking off and working their way to my heart and into my lungs,” Meyer said.
Dr. Charles Yockey, another pulmonologist at Lawrence Pulmonary Specialists, said once the clots reached Meyer’s lungs, they blocked an artery, creating pulmonary emboli. That’s a condition Yockey said is common and occasionally fatal.
The classic symptoms of pulmonary emboli include shortness of breath, chest pain and a cough. But these symptoms are associated with a number of conditions.
“The biggest challenge for physicians is suspecting it,” he said.
Luckily for Meyer, his symptoms were caught in time for treatment. He was given blood thinners and hospitalized overnight.
Weeks later, Meyer followed up with Dr. Dale Denning, a vein specialist at Lawrence Vein Center. Denning told Meyer that his long hours sitting in the car were most likely the cause of his blood clots.
“When blood doesn’t move, it clots,” Denning said.
Signs of blood clots include swelling in legs, ankles or calves, where skin also may be warm, red or discolored. Blood clots are common among people who are immobile for long periods of time, such as elderly people and others who recently have had surgery. But this issue can affect anyone, including travelers such as Meyer.
“Any prolonged inactivity can put you at risk,” Yockey said.
Meyer said he probably had issues with blood clots for months as a result of his long car trips.
“I just had been fortunate enough that I’d never had any clots of significance like what happened with all this travel,” Meyer said.
Meyer said he tried to move his long legs — he’s 6-foot-3 — while sitting during his long drives, but he said he should have done more.
“I thought that would be enough,” he said. “But that’s not really enough to activate the calf muscles that are really the pumps that pump the blood up to the heart.”
According to Denning, long airplane flights can put you at a greater risk because there are fewer opportunities to move around. If you suspect you have blood clots midflight, Denning said it is important to go to a facility that can confirm the presence of blood clots and place you on blood thinners as soon as you land.
To prevent blood clots, Denning recommends compression socks, leg exercises and walking around the airplane cabin every two to three hours, if possible. If you are driving, Denning said it is important to schedule breaks to walk around at least every two hours.
Meyer said he regularly wears compression socks and plans on taking these extra precautions for an upcoming flight to Iceland. Of the experience, Meyer said he is simply grateful it was diagnosed.
“I learned something new and stopped using up my nine lives,” Meyer said.
5 tips to prevent blood clots
• Try to walk around every two to three hours. If you are driving, it is important to walk every few hours to keep blood moving. If you are flying, try to walk around the cabin, especially on longer flights.
• Exercise your leg muscles in your seat. Sitting for long periods of time can cause blood to pool in your legs, which could cause a blood clot. Exercising your leg muscles helps pump blood out of your leg to your heart. Although walking is the best way to prevent this, it’s helpful to do small leg exercises in your seat. One simple exercise involves extending your legs and pressing your leg as if you are pressing down and lifting up the gas pedal repeatedly.
• Wear compression socks, which gently squeeze your leg to help keep blood flowing. They also help prevent your legs from feeling tired and achy. Compression socks are available at Mario’s Closet in Lawrence Memorial Hospital or any local drugstore.
• Take a low-dose aspirin (81 mg) about 30 minutes before you leave. Low-dose aspirin can help thin your blood and help prevent altitude sickness if you are traveling to a high-altitude area. If you have a history of blood clots, your doctor may prescribe blood thinners instead.
• Stay hydrated. When blood becomes dehydrated, it can thicken. Flying, in particular, puts you at risk, so it is important to drink plenty of water before, during and after your flight.
— Mattie Carter is an intern in the Marketing and Communications Department at LMH, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section. She can be reached at Mattie.Carter@lmh.org.