The formation of blood clots in the veins of the legs is a frequent cause of hospitalization and may lead to serious complications. This disease, called deep venous thrombosis (DVT), may afflict anyone at any age. It is likely to occur in several situations. One is when a patient is forced to lay in bed for several days due to some other illness. A second is during long periods of travel, particularly in cramped quarters such as an airplane, car or truck. Other diseases, such as cancer, may make a person more likely to develop blood clots as well.
The symptoms of DVT range from very mild tenderness to severe pain and swelling of the leg. The most dreaded complication of DVT is a pulmonary embolus. This occurs when a clot in the leg vein breaks loose and travels to the lung, causing shortness of breath and possibly even death.
Although several tests have been used to diagnose DVT in the past, the most common method required the injection of X-ray contrast material into the veins of the foot to visualize the clot. Called contrast venography, this method was uncomfortable and often caused inflammation of the vein itself. Today, ultrasound technology is used to provide a sonographic examination of the leg veins (venous imaging). This technique has a diagnostic accuracy identical to that of contrast venography without the discomfort, risk of contrast reaction, or chance of inducing vein inflammation seen with contrast venography. Ultrasound is rapid, painless, requires no preparation, and can be repeated as frequently as needed.
If present, DVT is treated with a medicine to prevent blood clot formation. Heparin and warfarin are the two drugs most commonly used in this setting.