A few years ago my family took a trip to China. Even before we arrived, I learned something about an unfamiliar health care culture. What I observed en route was that many of the older passengers on that long flight to Beijing were getting up from their seats and stretching. Not just once, but regularly and systematically – they were doing slow motion, isometric calisthenics on the airplane.
I took notice of their behavior first because it seemed a simple and inexpensive, albeit strange example of preventive medicine. Second, as a hematologist who cared for patients with blood clots upon traveling, I pondered the risks and benefits of their on-board exercises. Third, as a patient who’s had a blood clot, or deep venous thrombosis (DVT), I thought maybe I should follow their example.
Thrombophlebitis — the old term for DVT – happens when a vein (as opposed to an artery) gets clogged with platelets and fibrous proteins. These tend to develop in people who are immobilized – after a hip or spine surgery, for example, or during long, cramped trips in airplanes with little legroom. For this reason, long-distance travel (in any sort of vehicle – it could be a car or bus or a train) is a major risk factor.
Dehydration and some medications can exacerbate the risk of developing blood clots during travel, as can having some kinds of cancer. (Pancreatic cancer, prostate, ovarian cancer and other tumors in the pelvis are particularly troublesome in this regard.) Some people inherit an increased tendency to develop clots; in general these can be evaluated by blood tests.
Most often DVTs arise in the legs but sometimes these also occur in the arms and other body parts. The condition can cause discomfort, pain, redness and swelling of an affected limb. These clots are most dangerous, and potentially lethal, if they spread to the lung — what’s called a pulmonary embolism. So there’s good reason to avoid these as best you can.
Here’s a list of some precautions to avoid blood clots when traveling:
1. Try to get an aisle seat. This strategy allows you to periodically stretch your legs into the aisle, and to get up without disturbing others.
2. While seated, move your feet and legs around as much as circumstances permit, and at least every hour or so. If you absolutely must remain seated, flex your feet 10 times, and stretch your legs as best you can, bending and extending the knees, one at a time, in any available direction, 10 times each. Another exercise is to raise each foot and swivel it, pivoting the toes from side to side while keeping the ankle relatively still.
3. Get up periodically and walk, every hour or two if permitted. (This means getting less sleep if you’re lucky enough to fall asleep, but I think the trade-off is worth it: being tired upon arrival is unpleasant; getting a blood clot is worse than that.)
If you’re on an airplane — once you’re up and out of your seat, seek out a place near the kitchen, restroom or elsewhere where you might stand. Then, hold onto the wall or the back of a chair, lift and stretch each of your legs repeatedly and then march in place: one knee up, then the next for two minutes or so, as conditions (and flight attendants) allow.
4. Stay well-hydrated by drinking ample water. Alcohol is a diuretic and should be avoided or minimized; caffeine too. Of course, for some travelers with weak bladders drinking lots of fluids can create a need for frequent bathroom trips. But this isn’t such a bad thing if you’re at risk for DVT, because this gets you up and out of your seat.
5. Dress sensibly — avoid tight clothing. (Some doctors recommend TED (thrombo-embolic Deterrent) or other compression stockings for patients with DVTs who travel, but I find these graduated compression nylons so uncomfortable that they reduce mobility, besides the capacity to bend and flex my ankles and knees.)
For women: avoid “knee-high” stockings with compression bands pressing just below the knees. These are a set-up for reduced blood flow from the lower legs to the larger, central veins.
6. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about DVT and are planning a trip. Ask about what precautions you might take in the context of your specific medical circumstances. Some people use heparin, a blood-thinner, or other medications while traveling to reduce their risk. Keep in mind that for most people, the risk of forming a significant blood clot is low.
The trip to China was fabulous, well worth the distance.
More on travel next week –