Long Flight? Bed Rest? Easy Exercises Prevent Blood Clots
It’s frightening to know that you could get a blood clot in your leg, called deep vein thrombosis, when you’re recovering from surgery or stuck in a car or airplane for hours. Well, here’s something that will make you feel more in control: If you spend a few minutes on movement and prevention exercises, you may be able to avert dangerous clots.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) develops when your blood pools during inactivity and thickens into a clot. It’s more likely to happen in the lower part of your body, but it can also happen in your arm or other areas. If the clot begins to travel, it could make its way to your lungs and lead to pulmonary embolism, in which the clot blocks the flow of blood. If that happens, your lungs could be seriously damaged, and it could even lead to death.
One way to avoid DVT is through movement, said Eric Robertson, PT, DPT, a physical therapist, assistant professor of physical therapy at Regis University in Denver, and a spokesman for the American Physical Therapy Association.
Once you have a clot, you need an anti-coagulant or another medication to treat blood clots. Check with your doctor before you do any of these movements to make sure they’re safe for you.
Who Should Think About DVT Prevention?
Some people have a clotting disorder in which their blood clots more easily, but anyone who is inactive can get a blood clot. People at particular risk have had a recent injury or surgery, are on prolonged bed rest, or are experiencing swelling, or edema.
Cancer treatments, birth control pills, and hormone therapy can make it easier for your blood to clot. And women who are pregnant or who have just given birth are at risk because of the added pressure on their veins.
Being immobile on long air flights and riding in a car or train for several hours also increases your DVT risk.
Smoking raises your risk of clots because it negatively impacts circulation.
Doctors worry most about people who are older and have had a fracture or illness and have been in the hospital. “Your body is in a state where your blood may clot,” Robertson said, and being immobile makes it worse. When your heart pumps blood to your veins, muscle activity keeps the blood flowing. But when you’re sedentary, a clot could form.
Hospital staff will actively work to lower your risk of clots during surgery and afterward, Robertson said. There are also steps you can take yourself to help lower your risk.
Deep Vein Thrombosis Prevention Movements
The following moves don’t really hit the threshold of intensity to be considered exercises, Robertson said. But these movements and stretches are enough to keep your blood flowing and your risk for clots lower.
If you’re able, simply getting up for a short walk is a great thing to do, Robertson said. When you’re in the hospital, don’t be afraid to tell your nurse you want to take a walk. And just moving from your bed to a chair will help your circulation. When you’re on an airplane, take a trip to the restroom or stand up and stretch when possible. On a road trip, stop frequently to walk and stretch your legs.
When you can’t walk, here are movements you can do while seated. Robertson recommends doing a set of five repetitions of each about every half hour, 10 if you’re in a high-risk group.
Foot pumps. Place your feet flat on the floor, and then raise your toes toward you and hold for a few seconds. Lower your toes and balls of your feet to the floor, then raise your heels and hold for another few seconds.
Ankle circles. Raise both feet off the floor and trace a circle with your toes. You could also trace each letter of the alphabet to keep yourself occupied, Robertson said.
Leg raises. If you have room in front of you, raise your left foot off the floor. Straighten the leg slowly, then return your foot back on the floor. Repeat with your right leg. Alternatively, slowly lift your left knee up to your chest, then bring your foot back to the floor; repeat with your right leg.
Shoulder rolls. Although you’re less likely to form a clot in your upper body, it doesn’t hurt to keep your blood flowing there. Simply raise your shoulders and circle them back and down five times. Then reverse direction for five more repetitions.
Stretching While Lying Down
Here are movements to do when you’re lying in bed or on a couch.
Foot pumps. Although this can be done in a chair, these are especially beneficial when your legs are elevated, Robertson said. To do them in this position, stretch your toes up and back, flexing your feet, and hold for a few seconds. Then point your toes and hold before repeating.
Thigh stretches. The Coalition to Prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis recommends stretching your hamstrings, the muscles on the back of the thighs, to help prevent clots. Lie on your back with your legs straight and raise one leg to a 90-degree angle with your body. Pull the leg gently toward you and hold for up to 30 seconds. Then slowly bring your leg back down to a flat position, and repeat with your other leg.
Here's a second thigh stretch. From the same flat starting position, bring one knee into your chest, hold with your hands for 15 seconds, and then return leg to a straight position. Repeat with the other knee.
The bottom line is the more you move, the better. Once you’re able, take on higher intensity activities, and you’ll continue to lower your risk for DVT.
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