Types of Blood Clots and What They Mean
Most of us know a blood clot as a bit of dried blood that seals and heals an external wound like a cut or a scrape. Blood clots contain long strands of fibrous proteins that give them strength and allow them to act like tough and durable plugs.
However, the properties that make blood clots helpful in healing external wounds make them harmful when they impede the flow of blood in veins and arteries inside our bodies, leading to potentially fatal conditions such as stroke or heart attack. By knowing the types of blood clots and symptoms to watch for, you can take steps to reduce your risk of these dangerous complications.
There are two different types of clots:
Arterial clots form in the arteries. Once arterial clots form, they cause symptoms immediately. Because this type of clot prevents oxygen from reaching vital organs, it can cause intense pain and serious health emergencies such as stroke, heart attack, severe abdominal pain and paralysis.
Venous clots typically form slowly in the veins. Venous clot symptoms, which include swelling, redness, numbness, and pain, become noticeable gradually.
Blood clots can occur in many different parts of the body, each having unique symptoms:
Legs and arms: Symptoms of blood clots in the extremities vary. They may include pain, cramping, swelling, tenderness, warmth to the touch, and reddened skin. Clots in larger veins are called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Blood clots can also occur in smaller, more delicate veins that are closer to the skin.
Heart: Common symptoms of myocardial infarction include pain in the chest and left arm, sweating and difficulty breathing.
Lungs: The most common symptoms of a pulmonary embolism include shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chest pain and cough. Other symptoms may include sweating, discolored skin, swelling in the legs, irregular heartbeat, and dizziness.
Blood clots can require medical intervention when they develop in, or travel to, critical areas inside your body. They can result in serous health issues such as:
Pulmonary embolism: If a blood clot breaks away from a deep vein thrombosis and travels to your lungs, it may cause a larger and potentially life-threatening condition there.
Heart attack: If blood clots form in the arteries of the heart, they may block the flow of blood and result in a heart attack.
Stroke: Blood clots that form in your heart or within the carotid arteries in your neck may travel to your brain and cause a stroke.
If you have any of the following conditions, you have an increased likelihood of developing blood clots:
- Heart conditions, such as atrial fibrillation
- Peripheral artery disease
- Prolonged immobility or bed rest
- Certain medications, including birth control pills, hormone therapy drugs, and some breast cancer medications
- Surgery, especially orthopedic procedures that immobilize the patient
- A family history of blood clots or blood disorders
- Age (increased risk for people over age 60)
To reduce your chances of developing a clot, follow these guidelines:
Don’t sit for extended periods of time. If you work at a desk, take a short stroll around the office building every hour or so. If travelling by air, walk the aisle periodically. On car trips, visit rest stops and take a walk.
Get mobile. If you've had surgery or have been on bed rest, get up and move around as soon as your doctor allows it.
Change your lifestyle. If you are overweight, have high blood pressure, smoke cigarettes, or lead a sedentary lifestyle, your risk for blood clots is high. By making healthy changes to your diet and daily routine, you dramatically decrease your chances of developing a blood clot.
If you do develop a blot clot, there are several treatment options your doctor can pursue.
For arterial clots. Your doctor may recommend catheter-directed thrombolysis, a procedure that delivers blood thinning drugs to the site of the clot. In emergency cases, you may need surgery to remove the clot. These treatments are aggressive since arterial clots can block blood flow to vital organs.
For venous clots. If you are diagnosed with a deep venous clot, your doctor will prescribe blood thinning medication.
On average, 274 people die every day from blood clots--that’s one every six minutes. But perhaps more troubling is less than 25% of the population knows the signs of blood clots.
By understanding the risk factors and symptoms of blood clots, you are more likely to heed warning signs, get appropriate treatment when necessary, and modify your lifestyle to significantly lower your chances of developing a life-threatening blood clot.