Thrombosis is a general term that refers to the formation of a blood clot in a blood vessel. This clot can then partially or completely obstruct the blood vessel, which prevents the blood from circulating properly. When the problem occurs in a vein, it is usually called thrombophlebitis.
Blood circulation throughout the body takes place in a closed circuit of blood vessels made up of arteries and veins. The heart pumps blood into the arteries, which carry oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. The veins then carry the oxygen-depleted blood to the lungs. The blood is then able to get rid of waste gases the body doesn't need and replenish its oxygen stores. If these blood vessels are blocked, a part of the body can be deprived of essential elements.
Thrombophlebitis usually affects the veins located in the calves and thighs. Superficial thrombophlebitis affects small surface veins, and deep vein thrombosis affects larger veins. The risks associated with thrombophlebitis depend on the vein that is affected.
Thrombosis can also lead to what is known as an embolism. An embolism is a sudden blockage of a blood vessel, usually an artery, and occurs due to the movement of a clot. Embolisms most often occur in the lungs, causing what's known as pulmonary embolism. If an embolism occurs in the brain, it can cause a stroke.
Causes and triggers
Clot formation is a natural and essential process that occurs in the body. Clots help prevent significant blood loss when a blood vessel is damaged and act like a barrier of sorts to prevent bleeding. They only become problematic when a clot forms unnecessarily and remains in the blood vessels.
Factors that can lead to the formation of a spontaneous blood clot include:
- Prolonged immobility (e.g., wearing a cast, taking a long flight)
- Taking certain medications (e.g., contraceptives that contain estrogen)
- Certain hereditary diseases
- Physical trauma (e.g., a car accident)
- A history of thrombosis
- Advanced age (especially after age 65)
In most cases, thrombosis is treated with medication that reduces the blood's ability to clot. However, these treatments require regular medical follow-ups since they increase the risk of bleeding. Treatment duration is determined by the severity of the thrombosis and the risk of recurrence.
In some cases, surgery or the use of a drug that can dissolve the clot may be necessary.
For some people, wearing tight socks (compression stockings) can help prevent clots from forming in their legs.
Certain lifestyle habits can also help reduce the risk of developing thrombosis:
- Quitting or avoiding smoking
- Avoiding immobility, being active
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Staying hydrated
When should I see a health care professional?
Seek emergency medical attention (call 911) if you experience any of the following:
- Symptoms of thrombosis in one of your limbs:
- Sensitivity or pain
- Symptoms of a stroke:
- Numbness and sagging in the face
- Inability to raise both arms normally
- Impaired speech (e.g., difficulty pronouncing words normally)
- Vision problems (e.g., blurred or double vision)
- Sudden intense headache
- Numbness, often on only one side of the body
- Loss of balance
- Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism:
- Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
- Tightness in the chest (which may worsen with breathing)
- A cough that may include blood