Prevent the dangerous “economy class syndrome”

A DVT (deep vain thrombus) is a condition that can be life threatening in travelers. You can get this from having poor blood circulation in the lower body, which leads to the blood clotting in the veins of the legs. The danger occurs if this clot finds its way to the lungs, suffocating the victim. This condition also goes by a few other names like VTE (venous thrombo-emobolism), PE (pulmonary emolism) or “economy class” syndrome” due to the cramped leg space on some airline carriers.

The veins of the legs carry blood, under low pressure, back to the heart and lungs, to be recharged with fresh oxygen. When a clot develops in these veins, it can be very large due to the increased diameter of the veins in the legs. Normal, healthy blood is made to clot and prevent somebody from bleeding to death in the event of a trauma. Blood also clots if it is not moving at its standard rate as well. A person sitting in a plane or car, for greater than 3-4 hours, is at risk for having decreased blood flow in the legs which can cause this dangerous clotting.

A sharp pain in the chest, increased heart rate and shortness of breath are all common symptoms. The DVT can occur several days after a trip and is, usually, first noticed as swelling of one leg more than another.

Travelers need to know how to maintain good blood flow in the legs, thus minimizing the risks of this deadly condition. For longer flights, trains, and drives, they key is mobility! Get up and out of your seat every hour to walk around. Visit the bathroom, walk the isle for a few paces or do some simple stretches in your chair. Some of my favorite stretches include flexing my calf muscles by raising my heels off the ground and placing my weight on the balls of my feet. Deep knee bends also work very well for stretching the muscles of the legs and increasing blood flow to the area.

Treatment for these conditions are required immediately. Medicines such as heparin or enoxaparin are commonly used. Awareness of this condition and taking steps to ensure good blood flow to the legs, during travel are the keys to prevention.

Resources: CDC Traveler’s Health Yellow Book: DVT