Deep Vein Thrombosis: Treatment & Recovery

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. They have a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. They also are certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

In this lesson, we'll first go over what happens during deep vein thrombosis. Then we'll go over different types of treatment for this condition. Lastly, we'll see what recovery looks like for patients and how they return to daily activities.

What Happens During Deep Vein Thrombosis?

After taking a long hot shower, you notice the water backing up in the tub. There is a clog in your pipes somewhere, so the water can't keep moving in the direction it's supposed too. The water is backing up and probably damaging the pipes and insulation around them. You get right on the problem and call a plumber to help you unclog the drain.

This unpleasant situation can actually happen in your body too. Blood vessels called veins carry blood from the body back to the heart just like the pipes in your house carry water away to the treatment plant. Sometimes, blood clots, or a collection of cells and proteins, cause your veins to clog. Blood starts to build up and flow backwards, causing damage to your veins just like your clogged pipes can damage your house.

When blood clots clog the deep veins in your body, usually in the legs, a condition called deep vein thrombosis develops. This condition can cause damage to your veins, the tissue around them and can even kill you if the clot breaks loose and travels to the lungs. Today, we're going to look at treatments for this condition and how recovery looks for patients who have had deep vein thrombosis.

Blood clots in veins can cause deep vein thrombosis.
deep vein thrombosis

Treatments for Deep Vein Thrombosis

Luckily, there are treatments for deep vein thrombosis. Depending on the severity of the clot, emergency medications, long-term medications and lifestyle changes can be prescribed. The first step is always to reduce or remove the clots, then strategies focus on preventing additional clots from forming.

Emergency Treatment

Sometimes, deep vein thrombosis can develop into a life-threatening situation. The clot may become dislodged from the veins in your extremities and travel to crucial organs such as the lungs. In this case, you'll need some serious anti-clotting medication.

Thrombolytic medications are clot-busting drugs that quickly dissolve blood clots. However, since they are designed to unclot blood, sometimes they can induce heavy bleeding, and, hence, are only used in emergency situations. Thrombolytics also need to be delivered directly to the site of the clot. Usually, an IV of the medication is delivered directly to the clot.

Thrombolytic medication must be delivered directly to the vein with the clot, which is usually in the leg in deep vein thrombosis.
leg veins


When the blood clot is naturally broken up or is broken up by thrombolytic medication, the initial risk is over, but doctors still need to prescribe medication to ensure that new blood clots don't develop. These drugs are called anticoagulants because they prevent the blood from clotting, or coagulating. Let's look at an example of how these drugs might be prescribed to a patient.

Dr. Harper reads the patient's chart before entering the room. It looks like they recently had a surgery and might be suffering from deep vein thrombosis. After running blood tests and doing a scan to locate the clot, Dr. Harper decides her patient does have deep vein thrombosis. She prescribes an anticoagulant called heparin. She explains that the IV of heparin will work fast to help prevent any further clotting.

Heparin is an anticoagulant medication administered through an IV.
IV bag

Dr. Harper also writes a prescription for a pill called warfarin--which takes longer to work--that her patient can take at home. She writes the prescription for six months and advises her patient to take it daily.

Bottles of Warfarin

Her patient will need to return often for blood tests. A common side effect of anticoagulants is bleeding. Sometimes people can be bleeding internally and not know it, which can be fatal if important organs are damaged. Regular doctor appointments can help track this problem. If the anticoagulants aren't tolerated, some people respond to over-the-counter aspirin to reduce the risk of blood clots.

Lifestyle Changes

Smoking, obesity and inactivity can all lead to deep vein thrombosis. The best solution is to make healthy choices after your recovery and quit smoking. Dr. Harper also recommends compression stockings for all her patients. These tight socks are worn over the legs up to the thighs. They squeeze the leg muscles and help to improve circulation of blood back to the heart.

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