Venous thromboembolism (VTE) is a potentially fatal medical condition in which a blood clot forms, often in the deep veins of the leg, groin, or arm, which is what is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). If a part of this clot breaks off, it can travel through the circulatory system and eventually lodge in the lungs as a pulmonary embolism (PE).
“Venous thromboembolism (VTE), like many other medical disorders, has been the subject of a great deal of misinformation, which has led people to not treat it with the seriousness it deserves,” says Dr Helen Okoye, medical expert and spokesperson for World Thrombosis Day (WTD), a global movement aimed at increasing the awareness of thrombosis.
“We often see people arriving at the hospital seeking treatment for a condition. Upon diagnosis of having a blood clot, they’re often shocked, as they wrongly believed that blood clots only happened to the elderly or very sick people,” she says.
To better comprehend VTE and who it can affect, Dr Okoye discusses the following common myths that have arisen around blood clots:
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1. You’re physically fit, so not at risk of blood clots
This is undoubtedly one of the most common thrombosis myths. While being physically fit lowers your risk of blood clots and a few other medical disorders, it may not entirely prevent you from developing a blood clot. “Even if you regularly engage in physical activity, if you keep your body in a static or cramped state for hours at a time – such as during long-haul travel or if you’re in bed recuperating after an operation – your circulation slows down and blood starts pooling in your extremities, which increases the potential for forming blood clots,” cautions Dr Okoye.
2. Only older or sickly patients develop blood clots
VTE does not discriminate. It affects people of all ages, races, and ethnicities. While the risk of thrombosis does increase with age – due to older people being more likely to develop other health conditions that increase the risk of thrombosis – blood clots can occur in young adults and even children and babies – although the chance of developing a DVT or PE is much lower in children than in adults. When seemingly healthy adults develop blood clots, factors like genetics often play a big role, especially if there are inherited blood clotting disorders or a family history of blood clots. Ensure that your doctor is well informed of any VTE cases in your family.
3. Women are more likely than men to develop clots
Although taking birth control pills and being pregnant put women at a higher risk of getting blood clots, thrombosis can impact anyone. The risk doesn’t specifically lie with the gender of a person, but rather with their age and stage of life, says Dr Okoye. “Women in their childbearing years are at a higher risk than men of the same age, due to pregnancy and the use of oral contraceptives – both of which increase a woman’s chance of getting a blood clot. But, as people get older, the risk of thrombosis gets bigger for men, who are more likely than women to develop clots as they age.
4. Blood clots mostly affect travellers
Another widespread myth is that blood clots most frequently happen while travelling. Yes, you do expose yourself to the risk of VTE if you travel in cramped conditions, like long-haul bus rides and flights where you have minimal leg room and don’t frequently stop to take a walk or get up to stretch your legs. However, there is a higher likelihood of VTE for those who have sedentary lifestyles. Sitting or lying down for extended periods of time can lead to blood clots forming. This is important to note, especially for those working behind a desk full time. Schedule regular breaks in your daily work routine to get up and move around.
According to data from WTD patients placed on bed rest are also at a high risk of VTE, with up to 60% of all VTE cases occurring during or within 90 days of hospitalisation, making it a leading cause of preventable hospital death.
Additional risk factors for DVT include smoking, major surgery, cancer treatments, obesity, diabetes, heart or lung disease, infectious conditions such as hepatitis, and inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
5. Thrombosis is a rare condition
Blood clots are far more common than most people realise, with a higher number of people dying of the life-threatening conditions caused by thrombosis than the total number of people who lose their lives to AIDS, breast cancer, and car crashes combined, every year.
A widespread lack of understanding around thrombosis and its risk factors has led to the misconception that it is not a major medical condition, yet if not caught early, it can cause serious illness, disability, and even death.
“Blood clotting is a natural occurrence in our bodies as it stops the blood flow from a cut or injury, but when clots develop unnecessarily, they can be fatal. If identified early on, blood clots can be treated and most patients recover fully to resume their normal day-to-day lives,” concludes Dr Okoye.