What Is Deep Vein Thrombosis?

Blood clots naturally occur to keep your body from losing too much blood after an injury. If your body does not properly break down a clot, you may develop a serious condition called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). This occurs when a blood clot forms in the deep or central veins of your body, which usually start in your legs but can also form in your pelvis, groin, or arm.

DVT vs. PE

All of your veins lead back to your heart and lungs. If a DVT travels to your lungs, it's called a pulmonary embolism (PE) or venous thromboembolism (VTE). A pulmonary embolism is a medical emergency that stops the blood flow to your lungs.

If left untreated, DVT may cause serious illness and, in some cases, death. Thrombosis specialists at University of Utah Health are highly trained to provide cutting-edge treatment and high-quality care for patients with DVT. We will even help you lower your risk for DVT in the future.

Deep Vein Thrombosis Symptoms

What Are the Warning Signs of Deep Vein Thrombosis?

DVT may cause the following symptoms:

  • swelling,
  • pain or tenderness,
  • a “warm” feeling,
  • sudden cramping or soreness, or
  • red, darkened skin around the area of pain.

If you experience these symptoms in your calf, foot, leg, or arm, it’s important to seek medical help immediately. Do not wait to see if symptoms disappear. In some cases, DVT may not show any symptoms.

Deep Vein Thrombosis Causes

DVT occurs when blood can’t flow through your veins properly. When this happens, your blood cells collect with other proteins to form a clot within the vein.

Causes of DVT include:

  • blood vessel trauma during an injury or surgery,
  • changes in blood flow such as not getting enough oxygen, or
  • risk factors that cause your blood to clot more than normal.

Deep Vein Thrombosis Risk Factors

Your chances are higher for developing DVT if you:

  • are over the age of 40,
  • are pregnant,
  • are immobile or on bed rest,
  • have had recent surgery (especially orthopedic surgery),
  • have experienced trauma or an injury to your veins,
  • are taking birth control pills,
  • are undergoing hormone replacement therapy,
  • are obese,
  • smoke,
  • or have cancer.

Deep Vein Thrombosis & Pregnancy

Your risk for DVT increases when you are pregnant because your blood may have trouble flowing normally from your legs back to your heart. However, this isn’t common for most pregnancies.

If you develop DVT symptoms during your pregnancy, call your health care provider immediately or go to the nearest emergency room. Early diagnosis and treatment will help keep you and your baby safe.

Deep Vein Thrombosis Diagnosis & Tests

To diagnose DVT, one of our specialists will ask you about your symptoms. We will also examine your body for signs of swelling, tenderness, or skin color changes. If we suspect you have DVT, we may perform additional tests to rule out other health conditions or confirm our DVT diagnosis.

D-dimer study—This test looks for D-dimer (a protein that blood clots make) in your blood. High levels of D-dimer in your blood tell us that a blood clot may be present in your body. If the D-dimer is positive, we will order additional testing to diagnose a clot.

Venous ultrasound—This noninvasive test uses sound waves to create images of veins in your body. Venous ultrasounds help us find and diagnose a large percentage of blood clots in the veins.

MRI scan—Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses radio frequency waves to take images of your veins to show if a clot has formed. We may order an MRI to diagnose DVT in veins of your abdomen, pelvis, or other areas of your body.

Deep Vein Thrombosis Treatment

Once diagnosed with DVT, we will treat the blood clot to prevent it from growing or traveling to other areas of your body. We may also take additional steps to reduce your chances of another DVT with medication or other preventative treatments.

Our DVT treatment options include:

  • Blood thinners—These medications prevent existing clots from getting bigger and lower your risk for developing more clots. Blood thinners may be prescribed as a pill, intravenously (injected through a thin tube that goes into your veins), or another type of skin injection.
  • Thrombolytics—This medicine will be administered through a catheter (a thin tube) in your vein to break up and dissolve the clot.
  • Compression stockings—These are high socks that fit tightly around your feet, legs, and thighs. Compression stockings will apply pressure and allow your blood to flow freely from the legs to the heart. The pressure will reduce pain and swelling and stop blood from clotting to form a DVT.

If your doctor determines you need surgical intervention, our thrombosis specialists perform two types of procedures for patients with DVT. Surgery for DVT includes:

  • Mechanical thrombectomy—In this minimally invasive procedure, your doctor will use X-ray technology to guide a catheter through your vein to the clot. Your surgeon will then insert a stent retriever (looks similar to a net) into the clot, retrieve it, and pull it out.
  • Suction thrombectomy—During this procedure, your doctor will insert a catheter into the vein. Using a syringe, your doctor will suction the clot into the catheter and remove it from your body.

When to See a Thrombosis Specialist

In the early stages of DVT, you will likely see an emergency room doctor or your primary care physician to receive diagnosis and initial treatment. If the problem with your blood clot is ongoing, however, you may be referred to a specialist.

Some patients with chronic DVT develop phlegmasia, a painful condition in which inflammation compromises the circulation of your arteries. If you develop this condition, you will likely be referred to our Thrombosis Clinic for evaluation. If your DVT, or secondary condition caused by DVT, doesn’t resolve, talk to your provider about whether or not seeing a specialist would benefit you.

Find a Thrombosis Specialist

Deep Vein Thrombosis Prevention

There is no way to completely prevent DVT. However, you can lower your risk for developing it by:

  • staying active,
  • avoiding tobacco, and
  • losing weight (if obese).

Moving your body is the main way to prevent DVT. If you're traveling a long distance by plane or car, take walking or standing breaks. If you’ve had any type of surgery that requires rest, ask your doctor when it’s safe to get up on your feet to get blood flowing again.

How Long Can a Blood Clot Go Undetected?

Small blood clots in the calf can sometimes go undetected for several days or weeks, especially if they don’t show any symptoms.

If left untreated, however, DVT can travel up the veins in the leg to the lungs or other major organs in the body, leading to a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism or similar complication.

Post-phlebitic syndrome is another risk of untreated DVT. This occurs when the valves in your veins are damaged from blood clots. The valves will stop working and cause chronic swelling and pain even after the DVT has been treated.

If you have any signs or symptoms of a DVT or pulmonary embolism, seek medical care right away.

Schedule a Consultation

You may get a referral to see our specialists from your primary care physician. However, you don’t need one to schedule an appointment. One of our patient coordinators will schedule an initial evaluation for you.

Before you make an appointment, you’ll want to make sure your insurance plan requires a referral to see a specialist. For questions about your coverage, call your insurance provider.