Frequent Air Travel, Varicose Veins, and Deep Vein Thrombosis

Posted in General on July 12, 2018

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.  It is generally accepted that sitting in a stationary position for any extended period of time is not great for vein health.  When you are sitting for a long period of time your calf muscles are not contracting/squeezing, and the blood in your veins has a tendency to “pool” in the lower leg. This pooling of blood can result in swelling of the calf and ankles, which can increase the risk of blood clot formation.  These considerations are especially important for people who have a history of venous blood clot, known vein problems or obesity.

Fortunately, there are some easy things that can be done to reduce leg symptoms and minimize the risk of blood clot.

Walk Around

One of the things that you can do to 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 quite 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 having a departure/arrival gate located at the end of a terminal!

flight attendants waiting in line to board a plane

Flex Your Ankles

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

Wear Compression Stockings

Compression stockings have been recommended by some to reduce leg and ankle swelling that can occur on long plane flights. Although there is limited data to support the reduced risk of venous blood clots with compression hose, there really is 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.

Seek Medical Treatment If Your Legs Hurt or Swell

If you experience leg pain or leg 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, and can be potentially serious.

Deep vein thrombosis is more sinister than superficial vein blood clots, because deep vein blood clots can 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:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Stand and stretch frequently (when the seatbelt sign is OFF)
  • Use compression stockings while traveling
  • Move your toes and flex your feet every 15 minutes or so to keep fresh blood flowing
  • Stand and walk up and down the aisle when you can
  • Rub your calves and feet (if you’re able) once per hour

Using any or all of these methods could 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.

Though there is quite a bit of research out there, that basically all points the same direction, there is still much undiscovered about air travel and vein diseases. It’s widely accepted to wait a few weeks after any type of vein procedure to travel by plane, though short distance flights may be resumed within a week or so.

We Are Here to Help

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 problems 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 wonderfully gentle and knowledgeable staff today.

Safe travels!

by: Peter Ford MD

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