How Are Flights Related to Edema in Legs?

For most people, a little leg and foot swelling is not a big deal. Sitting with your feet on the floor causes blood to pool in your leg vein, causing the fluid to seep out into the surrounding soft tissues. It happens. Usually, it’s no big deal. If you sit at a desk for work, you’re likely experiencing the same natural occurrence. The risk for complications is a little bit worse on a flight, as you’re in a pressurized cabin that dehydrates you. Alcohol or caffeine consumed on the flight doesn’t help either.

The concern is that the combination of immobility and dehydration will lead to excessive swelling and a potentially fatal condition known as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). Feasibly, a blood clot in the leg could break off into the blood stream, travel to your vital organs, and lead to serious injury or even death.

Venous thrombosis, in one form or another, is believed to affect one in 1,000 Americans. About 100,000 people die from DVT each year. (That’s roughly the same number of people that die from prescription medications or from hospital-acquired infections per year.) The risk is not huge, but it’s something of which you should be aware, particularly if you fall into the risk pool.

Who Is at Risk for DVT?

Prepare to take preventative measures on your next flight if:

  • You’ve had previous experience with DVT. (One-third of patients will have another.)
  • You’ve had orthopedic surgery recently. (Up to 80% of surgical patients have DVT.)
  • You’re over 60. (The risk starts to climb at 40, but peaks between 60 and 70.)
  • You’ve recently fractured a long leg bone.
  • Your BMI is over 30. (You have 2-3 times the risk.)
  • You’re pregnant. (Your risk increases five-fold with the baby pressing on your veins.)
  • You’re on birth control or estrogen therapy.
  • You have a family history of thrombosis. (You have a 50% chance of acquiring the risk factor.)
  • You have pancreatic cancer, gastric cancer, or you’re undergoing chemotherapy.

How Long a Flight Increases Your Risk of DVT?

Any form of cramped, immobilizing travel lasting more than a couple hours increases your risk of DVT. If you’re taking a road trip this holiday season, the risk exists for you, too. After just four hours of cramped travel, your risk of DVT doubles—a risk that persists for several weeks after your initial voyage.

What Are the Symptoms of DVT?

One of the problems with travel-related DVT, in particular, is that it doesn’t show symptoms in about half of all sufferers. Some people notice swelling in one leg, but not the other, along with leg pain. Others notice a throbbing, cramp-like feeling in the calf muscle. You could have tenderness or pain while standing and walking. Your skin may feel unusually warm or appear reddish or blue in color.

Can a Clot Dissolve on Its Own Without Treatment?

The body naturally dissolves clots by activating plasmin protein found in the wall of a clot. It could take several weeks for this to occur. Doctors can speed up the process (or even prevent clots) by prescribing blood thinners. Thrombolytics are another class of drug that busts clots by activating plasmin.

Steps to Prevent DVT and Edema in Legs

If you’re planning to travel over the holidays, at the very least you should:

  • Stand up, stretch your legs, and take a brief walk once every 60 to 90 minutes.
  • Consume less sodium before your flight and drink lots of water during the flight.
  • Store your bags in overhead compartments and, if possible, purchase a seat with extra legroom.
  • Avoid crossing your legs. Instead, point your toes up and down and move them from side to side.
  • Wear comfortable, well-fitting athletic or slip-on shoes and loose pants. Consider compression socks or hose.


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