When most people worry about health issues, typically cancer and heart disease are the first things to come to mind—and justifiably so. Studies show that these two diseases take the lives of more Americans than any others.
But did you know that there’s a silent killer that ranks near the top of the list too, killing more than 274 people per day? One American dies every six minutes from complications of a blood clot.
What is a blood clot?
A blood clot is a gelatinous mass that is formed by platelets and fibrin in order to protect you.
Blood clots’ primary function is to stop bleeding and repair damage that’s been done to an artery or a vein. Let’s say you have an injury to your artery (sometimes you can see it, sometimes you can’t). Platelets get called on to plug up the hole in the lining, then fibrin comes in to act as a final patch.
After the injury has healed and the clot is no longer necessary, your body disposes of it by dissolving it. Sometimes, however, not all goes well with this process, and problems occur.
The three biggest issues surrounding the mechanism of blood clotting involve instances in which:
1. They don’t dissolve properly.
2. They form when they’re not supposed to (like when there’s not enough circulation and blood gets stagnant).
3. They move to areas that they’re not supposed to be in. (This is type of clot is called an embolus and may “get caught” in an area and inhibit blood flow past it.)
Why does a blood clot form?
Nature intended blood clots to form to repair the body after trauma or injury, but they also form for other reasons.
Since circulation plays a huge factor in clotting, immobility is a frequent cause of blood clots. Your blood needs to move around and flow to different parts of your body. The less you move, the more stagnant your blood becomes.
The more stagnant it becomes, the more likely it is to clot.
In a vein, stagnant blood forms small clots along the walls. These clots can grow to a size at which they partially or completely block a vein and keep blood from returning to the heart. This is called the “damming effect.”
In an artery, the mechanism of clotting is different. Plaque or atherosclerosis forms along the walls of the artery, causing it to narrow. In an effort to get blood moving, the body uses considerable force to push it through the vessels.
This force can cause plaque to dislodge, which is a problem. When plaque dislodges, your body goes into overactive mode and unnecessarily forms blood clots.
What are the risk factors for forming blood clots?
Sometimes you can blame your tendency to clot on your ancestors, but more often lifestyle plays a huge part in unnecessary clotting. Here are the most common risk factors:
-High blood pressure
-Certain medications, such as birth control pills
-Long trips with prolonged immobility
-Surgery (especially when casts and splints are used)
-Age (people over age 60 have an increased increased risk)
-Certain inflammatory diseases
-Lack of physical activity
What are the signs that you may have a blood clot?
Unfortunately, some blood clots cause no symptoms until things have progressed to a serious stage (e.g., they become dislodged or rupture). Generally, if you have a clot in a vein, it develops slowly with a gradual onset of swelling and pain. These symptoms normally take hours to progress.
If you’ve got a clot in an artery, it’s much more of an immediate event. Your tissues need oxygen all of the time, and any loss of blood supply will create a situation where you’ll feel the symptoms right away. However, as acute as this type of blood clot is, there are warning signs that normally precede artery blockage.
If you experience any of the following, you may have a clot in a vein or an artery. Any of these signs warrants contacting your doctor or healthcare provider immediately.
1. Your skin is burning or freezing.
When there’s a disruption of blood flow, your body will let you know by changing the temperature of the area where the clot is. If you notice a part of your body that’s suddenly hot or extremely cold, call your doctor.
2. You have pale or reddened skin.
Along with disrupted blood flow and temperature change, you’ll also notice a change in the color of your skin.
If one area looks much paler or significantly redder than other areas, this can mean a blood clot as well.
3. You feel tingling in your arms or legs.
Are you feeling a persistent tingling in one arm or leg? Pay attention to see if it passes. If you have high blood pressure, be especially vigilant about watching for this sign.
4. You experience shortness of breath.
Shortness of breath and rapid breathing that are also accompanied by chest pain, a rapid pulse, and light headedness are symptoms of a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot located in the lung). This is a life-threatening condition and should be taken very seriously.
5. Your leg hurts or you feel a leg cramp.
Persistent pain or cramping in one area of one leg is a warning signal that something may be wrong. If it’s accompanied by change in color or temperature of the same area of the skin, you should call a doctor.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT, a blood clot that forms in a vein—typically in a leg) and arterial blood clots in the leg can move and end up as a pulmonary embolism. Take these signs very seriously.
6. You’re having trouble speaking.
If you’re having trouble speaking and this is accompanied by vision change, dizziness, and/or weakness in one side of the body, you may be experiencing a stroke (or a blood clot in an artery of the brain).
This is a life-threatening condition and the sooner you get medical attention, the better your prognosis will be.
7. You’re sweating profusely.
Excessive perspiration is a sign that you may have a blood clot in the lung or the heart (otherwise known as a heart attack).
If you’re feeling this along with chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, indigestion, and/or a rapid heart rate, go straight to your doctor or the emergency room.
8. Your back is hurting in a specific, non-muscular spot.
We don’t often associate back pain with a blood clot. But persistent back pain that’s not alleviated through stretching and massage can be a symptom of a blood clot in the pelvic area or the inferior vena cava (the main abdominal vein). Permanent damage may occur if this clot goes untreated, because it cuts off blood to the extremities.
9. You have blood in your stool.
Finding blood in your bowel movement is quite unnerving and can be attributed to many things. If it’s accompanied by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or abdominal pain, it may be mesenteric ischemia (a blood clot to an artery in the small intestine) and needs to be treated immediately.
In all of these cases, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. If you have a concern, contact your healthcare provider or nearest urgent care facility or hospital right away.