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How blood clots go from good to bad

Understanding DVT can help you stay ahead

Blood clots are all around

We have all seen a blood clot in action first hand. Any time you notice blood from a cut or see a bruise, it means there has been a hole in the wall of one of your blood vessels. Naturally, your body creates a protective barrier that will seal your blood vessel back off from the outside world. When you see a scab start to form, you are actually looking at a blood clot on the top of your skin.

This is why blood clots are so important; they are your body’s way of creating a protective barrier to reclose your blood vessel wall. If it wasn't for blood clots, we wouldn’t survive a simple cut or scrape.

How the clot forms, from platelets to fibrin

What happens when your blood begins to coagulate, forming a clot? As soon as your body detects an opening in the vessel wall, platelets are sent to the injury area and begin to form a plug. If that is not enough to stop the bleeding, your body will trigger a process called “coagulation cascade”, which triggers millions of proteins to gather, forming strands called fibrin. Fibrin weaves a web-like structure that reinforces the platelets’ plug. As the coagulation cascade continues to trigger fibrin formation, the clot grows. At some point you want that process to stop though, before you get too much of a good thing.

Blood clots shouldn’t stay too long

The body is meant to contain a healthy balance of proteins that both build and break down blood clots, allowing them to not only form but also to dissolve after the blood clot has served its purpose. In certain cases this balance can be thrown off, causing your body to continually produce (and thus grow) the blood clot. Want to know more about DVT risk factors? Click here. This can become a real problem when a blood clot forms in an artery for example, or in the case of thrombosis, within a “deep vein”. Deep veins are especially important because they lead directly to the body’s largest veins, called the venae cavae, which lead straight to the heart and on to your lungs.

Clots formed here are called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). They typically form in the calf, thigh or pelvis / groin, although they can also appear in other locations like the arm or chest. The good news is that the condition is treatable, especially when caught early. If you believe that you may have DVT but have not been diagnosed, please read this article on key symptoms to watch out for.

Clots that break away can create complications (PE)

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) can trigger pulmonary embololism (PE), which can be life threatening if not treated early. Note: doctors and nurses often refer to deep venous thrombosis and pulmonary embolism together as “venous thrombus embolism” or VTE. For a guide to all the jargon you need to know click here.

One in 10 DVT patients will develop an pulmonary embolism, nevertheless, this is often the primary concern with DVT. Our bodies normally handle blood clots by simply dissolving them, but if the body is unable to do this in time, a piece of the clot (called a thrombus) could break off and begin to travel through the blood stream. Because blood pumps through our bodies in a matter of seconds, a thrombus can travel relatively fast, moving all the way up and through the right side of the heart and on to the lungs. 

A larger thrombus can end up blocking blood flow to a bigger portion of the lung, while a smaller thrombus might continue to pass down and only block a smaller portion of the lung. In both cases, the affected region in the lung is no longer able to provide oxygen to the body.

DVT is a serious condition, but it is both preventable and treatable. Understanding DVT can help reduce your risk of developing it, or letting it develop further into pulmonary embolism (PE). As always, contact your doctor if you have questions.

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