Venous thromboembolism (VTE) is an umbrella term for two specific, sometimes related conditions. One is deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot in the leg. The second is pulmonary embolism (PE), a vein-blocking clot found within the lungs. These clots are fairly common in individuals who remain immobilized for extended periods of time, such as hospital patients and those who fly frequently.
Even with its common occurrence and rate of recurrence, the Cleveland Clinic notes that VTE is often overlooked, which can lead to potentially damaging ailments like chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension, and post-thrombotic syndrome.
Learn to recognize the signs of VTE to safeguard your personal health.
Signs and symptoms
The first step in understanding both DVT and PE is to know the underlying physical symptoms. Though they are both blood clot conditions, the part of the body in which they develop often causes different symptoms.
- Pale or reddish skin over the affected area
- Pain in the foot or ankle
- Cramping pain that usually begins in the calf
- An area that feels especially warm to the touch, which indicates impeded blood flow
- Swelling of the leg, ankle, or foot
Unfortunately, according to Healthline, only half of all DVT patients will ever experience symptoms to alert them to the problem.
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sharp chest pain
- Shortness of breath
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute notes that, much like DVT, it is possible to have an embolism without displaying any of these symptoms.
Tests for DVT and PE
Even though they have different symptoms, these conditions share three common diagnostic tests.
The first is a Doppler ultrasound. Soundwaves generate pictures of body parts and regions, including the legs, arms, and chest. The images can tell doctors where clots have formed, where they might be forming, any veins that are in danger of closing up, and other blockages, including cholesterol buildup. This test can also look at the overall health of the arteries.
There's also the D-dimer test. After blood is drawn, a doctor or lab tech analyzes the levels of a substance called fibrin degradation product, which is released when blood clots. The higher the levels in the sample, the more likely the presence of clots, including those associated with DVT and PE. According to Lab Tests Online, doctors may order a D-dimer with a few other accompanying exams, including a platelet count and a PT and INR, which check how quickly blood clots.
Many doctors also use a procedure called venography. Here, contrast die is injected into the arm, at which point X-rays are taken of the body part in question. These images give medical personnel an idea of the clot's location based on vein and muscle swelling. They can also pinpoint any congenital vein issues that may contribute to pain or decreased function. Because of the dye used, this test carries a risk of kidney infection.
A final note
Limited movement of the body leads to VTE, mostly because blood doesn't flow as effectively, resulting in clots. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), VTE is also more likely to impact those over the age of 60, due to already-diminished vein capacity. Some individuals even develop DVT and PE simultaneously.
If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of VTE, schedule an appointment with your doctor.