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Deep vein thrombosis(DVT): causes, symptoms, prevention

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Deep vein thrombosis
Deep vein thrombosis

What is Deep vein thrombosis(DVT)?

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a medical condition that occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein. These clots usually develop in the lower leg, thigh, or pelvis, but they can also occur in the arm.

It is important to know about DVT because it can happen to anybody and can cause serious illness, disability, and in some cases, death.

Life-threatening complications can arise from DVT when blood clots dislodge, travel in the bloodstream, and then lodge in other veins or arteries causing a blockage (this blockage is called an embolism). This can be life threatening, especially when the embolism occurs in the lungs, heart, or brain. Pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lung) is the most common of these serious DVT complications.

The good news is that DVT is preventable and treatable if discovered early.


Almost anyone can have a DVT. However, certain factors can increase the chance of having this condition. The chance increases even more for someone who has more than one of these factors at the same time.

General factors that indicate an increased risk of developing a DVT include:

  • Obesity

  • Smoking

  • Having previously had a DVT

  • Having a family member who has had a DVT.

A DVT is also more likely to occur when the blood flow through the deep veins is slowed. Immobility is one such factor; blood flow is slowed when a person remains immobile for long periods of time as a result of such things as:

  • Paralysis, eg: following a stroke or injury

  • Being bedridden, eg: following surgery or due to illness

  • Having a leg in a plaster cast or splint

  • Sitting for long periods of time while travelling, eg: in a bus, train, plane, or car.

Other factors that can slow blood flow include:

  • Injury to a vein, eg: as a result of a broken bone or severe muscle injury

  • Surgery – particularly orthopaedic and cancer surgery

  • Heart disease – particularly heart failure

  • Varicose veins

  • Phlebitis (inflammation of the walls of the vein).


About half of people with DVT have no symptoms at all. The following are the most common symptoms of DVT that occur in the affected part of the body:

  • Swelling

  • Pain

  • Tenderness

  • Redness of the skin

DVT can also occur in the upper leg, arms or neck and cause similar symptoms in those areas of the body.

If a pulmonary embolism occurs as a result of a DVT it may produce barely noticeable symptoms such as chest discomfort and mild breathlessness, or more noticeable symptoms such as sharp chest pain, a rapid heart rate, breathlessness, and coughing-up blood.

If you have any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.


Medication is used to prevent and treat DVT. General measures to help lower the risk of developing a DVT include to quit smoking, maintain a healthy body weight, and take regular exercise. When certain medical conditions or inherited disorders are present, long-term anticoagulant treatment to minimize the risk of DVT may be recommended.

Measures that can reduce the risk of DVT associated with long-distance travel include:

  • Compression stockings

  • Drinking plenty of non-alcoholic fluids

  • Leg and ankle exercises to encourage blood flow in the legs

  • People at high risk of DVT may be prescribed aspirin or anticoagulant tablets or injections whilst travelling.

Anyone at risk of DVT is advised to see their doctor prior to travelling to discuss preventative measures. Measures that can reduce the risk of DVT associated with being bedridden as a result of surgery or illness include:

  • Compression stockings

  • Anticoagulant medications

  • Specific leg and breathing exercises to promote blood flow.

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