You may be accustomed to your legs being tired after a long walk. That's a normal muscle response to exercise. But if you start to notice swelling in your legs, especially around the calf, you may have a different issue. Blood clots restrict the circulation in your legs and can become very painful. Here is what you need to know about these blood clots and how your doctor can prevent them from becoming a serious health problem.
The Impact of a Blood Clot in Your Legs
There are a number of reasons for a blood clot developing, including:
- recent surgery
- family history
- an injury to your knee
- weight gain
Small clots can form in your veins and never cause a problem. If a clot gets larger and begins to restrict circulation, it is called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The clot may block off a vein partially and keep the blood from moving out of your leg into the rest of the body. This forces the blood to pool in your leg, resulting in swelling. As the swelling and pressure increase, you'll develop pain deep in the tissues, and the area above the clot will be tender.
A serious danger of a clot is if it breaks away from the wall of the blood vessel and travels through the bloodstream. It can lodge in another blood vessel and block the blood flow. If it stops in one of the vessels feeding the lungs, you'll have a painful pulmonary embolism. If it stops in one of the coronary arteries feeding the heart, you could have a heart attack. If it ends up in the brain, you could have a stroke.
Diagnosing Blood Clots
There are a number of tests your doctor will do to determine the extent of the blood clots and where they are located.
- Blood tests will show the level of the clotting factors in your blood which control the development of blood clots.
- X-rays can show the swelling of blood vessels affected by clots. A dye may be injected into your bloodstream to help visualize the circulation.
- Using one of their portable ultrasound machines, your doctor can see the blood clots in your blood vessels on a computer monitor.
Once the location and extent of the clots are known, your doctor can begin treatment to prevent the clots from getting worse.
Treatment Options for Blood Clots
Your doctor may recommend a variety of treatment options to control your clots such as:
Blood thinners - These medications prevent the formation of new clots and keep existing clots from breaking off and floating free. They do not dissolve existing clots. A number of blood thinners exist; in spite of the name, these medications don't make your blood thinner. They control the factors in your blood that affect clot formation.
Catheter-Directed Thrombolysis - While your body will dissolve the clot naturally, if your doctor is concerned about it because of its size, they may recommend this procedure to destroy the clot. A thin catheter is fed into a vein and directed toward the clot. A medication is injected into the clot which dissolves it in place.
Surgical intervention - A filter can be placed in the vein to catch the clot and prevent it from spreading. In rare cases of severe DVT, the clot may be surgically removed from the vein, or an entire segment of the vein can be removed.
Once you've been diagnosed with blood clots in your legs, you'll likely be on a maintenance dose of a blood thinner to prevent future occurrences. You'll also see your doctor periodically for an ultrasound screening to look for new clots being formed.