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Is air travel bad for my veins?

Whether you are a frequent flyer, once-in-a-while traveler, or a flight attendant, you may have found yourself asking whether flying is bad for your veins. Sitting in a stationary position for an extended period of time is not great for vein health. When you are sitting your calf muscles are not contracting/squeezing, and vein blood can “pool” in the lower portion of the leg. This pooling of blood can result in swelling of the calf and ankles, and increases the risk of blood clot formation. These considerations are especially important for people who are overweight or have a history of blood clots.

 

One of the things that you can do that may reduce your chances of developing a venous blood clot around the time of air travel is simply walking up and down the aisle. This can be a little tricky, as there is limited aisle space in an aircraft, and we are often encouraged to “remain in our seat with our seatbelt fastened,” but getting out of your seat and walking up-and-down the aisle once every hour or so helps prevent pooling of venous blood and decreases the likelihood of getting a blood clot.

In addition, walking before, after and in-between flights is also beneficial, and is perhaps one of the few advantages to haven a departure/arrival gate located at the far end of a terminal!

Another strategy often recommended is flexing and extending your foot at ankle joint. When you push your foot down the muscles on the back of your calf are contracting, and this helps shunt venous blood out of the leg. Walking is much more effective than simply extending the foot, but in situations where you are not allowed or able to walk this may be your only alternative.

Compression hose (eg. knee or thigh-high socks/stockings) are often recommended to reduce leg and ankle swelling that can occur on long plane flights. Although there's limited data to confirm a reduced risk of blood clots with use of compression hose, there's not much downside to trying, and if you’ve had issues with leg or ankle swelling after flights in the past you may want to consider trying a pair. 

 

If you experience leg pain or swelling that persists after a flight, it’s prudent to seek immediate evaluation at a medical facility that has access to venous ultrasound. Blood clots are fairly common, easy to diagnose, easy to treat and respond best to treatment when caught early.

When blood clots develop in the leg veins this can potentially be a potentially serious problem. Unfortunately, the location, size, and significance of a blood clot cannot be determined by symptoms or the appearance of your leg.

If your leg is painful or swollen an ultrasound test can define the location and size of the clot. If a blood clot is identified within a “superficial vein” this is not typically a serious or life-threatening condition. However, if a blood clot is located within a “deep” vein, this is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and can be potentially serious.

 

Deep vein thrombosis is more sinister than superficial vein blood clots, because deep vein blood clots can potentially come loose and move through the bloodstream to your heart and lungs, which is known as a pulmonary embolism. Most patients who experience a pulmonary embolism will experience chest pain and/or shortness of breath. Although symptoms of pulmonary embolism can vary, they can mimic those of a heart attack. It’s very important to get emergency help if you believe you’re suffering from a pulmonary embolism, as this could result in permanent injury or even be fatal.

Some tips for those traveling by plane:

Using these methods should reduce the chances of complications due to flying for extended periods of time. It wouldn’t hurt to practice these on a regular basis outside of air travel, too.

If you have vein issues or leg symptoms, or want to discuss your vein health or treatment options your best bet is to call Dr. Ford and his team at Vascular Solutions. His team is fully equipped to accurately diagnose and treat any vein problem including varicose veins, venous reflux disease and deep vein thrombosis. They offer minimally-invasive treatment options and treat a wide variety of vein conditions in both men and women on a daily basis. If vein issues run in your family, be sure to contact Dr. Ford and his knowledgeable staff today.

Click here to see our video from Dr. Ford.

Safe travels!

Author
Peter Ford MD FACS RPVI Peter Ford, MD, FACS, RPVI, is a board certified vascular surgeon who works at Vascular Solutions in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dr. Ford specializes in the management of varicose veins and venous disease.

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