Who’s at Risk and How To Prevent Them

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A blood clot is a semi-solid mass of blood cells that are clumped together. When you have an injury like a cut or scrape on your skin, platelets and proteins in your plasma (the liquid portion of your blood) form a clot over the injury to help stop the bleeding. While blood clots can help prevent excessive hemorrhaging (blood loss), they can be harmful when they form inside your blood vessels (such as your arteries and veins).

A blood clot that forms inside an artery or vein is called a thrombus. A thrombus can partially or entirely block blood from reaching the surrounding tissues. When a blood clot breaks away from where it originally developed and travels to a different area, it is called an embolism.

Blood clots can develop almost anywhere in your body, including the arms and legs, brain, kidneys, heart, lungs, and abdomen. Depending on where a blood clot is blocking blood flow or where it moves in the body, it can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening. Fortunately, blood clots are often preventable, and there are several things you can do to lower your risk of getting one.

Blood clots can affect anyone, but some people have a higher risk than others. Knowing if you are at risk for blood clots is one of the most important steps you can take to prevent them. The most common risk factors for blood clots include:

  • Age: Older adults over the age of 65 are more likely to develop blood clots because aging can affect the health of your blood vessels and how easily blood flows through your veins.
  • Sex: Generally, people assigned male at birth have a higher risk of blood clots. But, those assigned female at birth have higher chances of getting a blood clot when their estrogen levels increase during pregnancy or while taking hormonal birth control or postmenopausal hormone therapy.
  • Medical conditions: Some medical conditions are associated with excessive blood clotting (medically known as hypercoagulation) and an increased risk of blood clots. These conditions include cancer, diabetes, atherosclerosis (a type of heart disease), vasculitis (blood vessel inflammation), heart failure, atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), obesity, and metabolic syndrome.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: Staying stationary (or, not moving) for long periods of time, such as on bed rest or during long flights or car rides, slows blood flow and increases the risk of blood clots.
  • Smoking: Tobacco use changes the surfaces of your platelets, making them more likely to stick together and form clots. It also damages the lining of blood vessels, which also increases the risk of a blood clot.
  • Surgery or trauma: Major surgery, especially abdominal, knee, or hip surgery, and traumatic injury (e.g., car accident or falls) can injure blood vessels and cause blood clots to form.
  • Medications: Certain medications that can affect the function of your blood vessels, such as hormone replacement therapy, cancer treatments, and hormonal birth control, can increase the risk of blood clots. 

Having a close family member with a history of blood clots may make you more likely to develop a blood clot yourself. Some inherited conditions, which occur due to gene mutations (changes) that affect blood clotting factors, can increase your risk of blood clots. The following conditions are associated with a higher risk of blood clots:

  • Factor V Leiden: A type of gene mutation that has a higher than average risk of blood clots, particularly blood clots that develop in the legs (deep vein thrombosis) and embolisms that travel to other areas of the body, such as the lungs. This occurs in about 5% of people with European ancestry.
  • Prothrombin 20210 mutation: Also known as factor II mutation, this condition causes abnormally high levels of prothrombin—a protein that helps your blood clot. About 2% to 4% of people with European ancestry and 0.4% with African ancestry have this mutation.
  • Protein C and S deficiencies: Protein C and protein S are the body’s natural blood thinners, helping prevent blood clots. Genetic mutations that cause a deficiency in either protein can increase your risk of blood clots.
  • Antithrombin deficiency: Antithrombin is a protein that protects your body from clotting too much blood. If your antithrombin levels are low, you are more likely to develop blood clots. Though antithrombin deficiency is rare, about half of those with this deficiency will develop at least one blood clot, usually after adolescence.

If you have a family member with a history of blood clots and are concerned about your risk, your healthcare provider can order blood and genetic tests to help determine whether you have an inherited blood clotting disorder.

Keep in mind: not everyone who is at risk for a blood clot will develop them. If you have a higher chance of developing blood clots, there are things you can do to help prevent them, including lifestyle modifications and medications.

Engage in Physical Activity

Moving your body with regular exercise and physical activity helps keep your blood flowing and prevents it from pooling, which is key for preventing blood clots. Aim for some kind of daily physical activity or movement. You don’t always need to exert yourself during your workouts. In fact, taking a walk helps prevent blood circulation, and even short walks benefit blood flow. If you are sitting for a prolonged period of time, try ankle and leg exercises from your chair. You can try:

  • Marching in place, lifting your legs one at a time from your seat
  • Rotating your ankles clockwise and counter-clockwise 
  • Foot pumps, by placing your toes on the floor and lifting your heels as high as you can 

Eat a Balanced Diet 

Consuming a balanced diet with nutritious foods plays a major role in preventing blood clots. A heart-healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can help improve cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation to support your heart health. Limit your intake of saturated fats and foods high in sodium (salt), such as prepackaged snacks, soups, and canned vegetables.

Stay Hydrated 

Good hydration supports healthy blood flow and reduces the risk of blood clots. When you are dehydrated, your blood retains sodium, which can slow down blood circulation and increase your chances of having a blood clot.

Experts suggest drinking plenty of water daily for optimal blood flow. The current guidelines recommend drinking at least nine glasses (72 ounces) daily for women and 13 glasses (104 ounces) for men. But, you may need slightly more or less depending on the climate you live in, your activity level, and overall health. Talk to your healthcare provider to learn the water intake level that is right for you.

Manage Obesity

Obesity is a risk factor for blood clots. Excess body fat puts added pressure on your veins and damages the valves in your veins, which keep blood flowing up toward the heart. When the valves are impaired or damaged, blood can pool in the vein, causing varicose veins and increasing the risk of blood clots. Maintaining a weight that is right for your body can reduce pressure on the veins and promote good circulation, which prevents blood from pooling and clotting.

Stop Smoking 

Tobacco use can thicken the blood and increase your risk of blood clots. Smoking also causes plaque to build up inside the artery walls, causing them to narrow and affect your blood flow. A blood clot within a narrowed blood vessel can lead to a heart attack.

If you smoke, quitting is one of the best things you can do to prevent blood clots and protect your heart health. It’s not always easy to quit smoking. If you’re interested in stopping, talk to your loved ones and healthcare provider for support and resources to sustain the new lifestyle change.

Reduce Your Stress Levels

When you’re stressed, your body releases stress hormones (like cortisol), which can play a role in forming blood clots. High cortisol levels increase the number of platelets in your blood—the blood cells that help prevent excess bleeding. With more platelets in your blood, you have a higher chance of forming a blood clot within a vein or artery.

Stress management looks different for everyone but may include breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, and getting plenty of sleep. Having a strong social support network can also help you cope with stress. Make time for your friends and family, and ask for help from a mental health provider when you need it.

Wear Compression Stockings

Compression stockings are specialized socks that are designed to improve blood circulation in your legs. The stretchy, elastic material fits snugly around the legs and helps promote blood flow from the legs back up to the heart—which may help prevent blood clots. Compression stockings come in various lengths (extending up to the knee or groin) and compression levels and are available both with and without a prescription.

Take Medications 

If your healthcare provider suspects you’re at an increased risk for blood clots, they may prescribe blood-thinning medications to help prevent blood clots from forming. Blood-thinning medications include: 

  • Anticoagulants: Anticoagulant drugs, such as heparin and warfarin, slow down your body’s process of making blood clots
  • Antiplatelets: Antiplatelet drugs, such as aspirin and clopidogrel, prevent platelets from sticking together and forming clots

Talk to your healthcare provider if you have concerns about developing blood clots. They can help assess your risk and develop a prevention plan to lower your risk. You may want to ask your healthcare provider questions, such as: 

  • Do I have any underlying health conditions that can raise my risk of a blood clot?
  • How would I know if I have a blood clot? 
  • What should I do if I develop symptoms of a blood clot? 
  • What are some things I can do to reduce my risk of blood clots? 
  • Are there medications or supplements I can take to lower my risk? 

Discuss any major lifestyle changes with your healthcare provider before implementing them. For example, if you are considering starting a new exercise program or adding dietary supplements to your daily routine, talk to your healthcare provider first to see if these methods are right for you. They can help ensure any changes you make are safe and effective for your health.

While blood clots can help reduce your risk of losing too much blood, when a blood clot forms inside of your blood vessels, you can experience serious and life-threatening complications. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce your risk of developing blood clots.

Experts recommend trying prevention strategies like eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking, and managing stress. Wearing compression stockings or taking blood-thinning medications may also help prevent blood clots in some people. Talk to your healthcare provider if you are concerned about your risk of developing blood clots. They can help develop a prevention plan to lower your risk of blood clots and support your overall health. 

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