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Thromboembolic Disorders: Symptoms, Types, Risk Factors, Causes, and Treatment

A thromboembolic disorder is a blood clot that blocks blood flow through your veins. It can be stuck in the deep veins of the legs or arms or travel through the veins to the lungs. A thromboembolic disorder that blocks the lungs is life-threatening. As such, it requires immediate treatment. Knowing the signs of thromboembolism and who is at risk can help you better recognize when you or someone you love needs medical attention.

What are Thromboembolic Disorders?

Thromboembolism is when a blood clot (thrombus) forms in a blood vessel, breaks loose and travels to another part of the body via the bloodstream, which blocks another blood vessel. When an unattached mass (embolus) causes the blockage, it is called an embolism. Thromboembolic diseases can affect multiple organs, eventually causing the organ to shut down and die. 

Two main types of thromboembolic disorders are categorized by the affected blood vessels.

  • Venous thromboembolism – the resulting blood clot blocks a vein. Venous thromboembolisms most commonly occur in the legs. When this happens, it is called a deep vein thromboembolism. Thromboembolism that happens in the lungs is potentially life-threatening. Pulmonary embolism can be fatal depending on the exact location and degree of blockage. The arms, liver, kidneys, and brain are less common locations for venous thromboembolism.
  • Arterial thromboembolism – the resulting blood blot blocks an artery, causing ischemia and possibly an infarction. Most arterial embolisms happen because of a blood clot. Arterial thromboembolism usually happens in the legs and feet, although it may also occur in the brain. When it does, this is called a stroke and may lead to a heart attack. Other possible locations are the kidneys, intestines, and eyes.

Signs and Symptoms of Thromboembolic Disorders

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Warmth
  • Pain
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Lightheadedness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Sweating or clamminess
  • Coughing up blood

What Causes Thromboembolic Disorders?

While venous thromboembolism and arterial thromboembolism share many risk factors, they have key differences.

Venous thromboembolism can be caused by:

  • Family history of venous thromboembolism
  • Obesity
  • Older age
  • Chronic illnesses such as heart disease, lung disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer
  • An injury to a vein (due to trauma or major surgery)
  • Use of a central venous catheter
  • Wearing a cast
  • Bed confinement
  • Sitting for a long time, particularly with crossed legs, such as on a long flight
  • Estrogen-based treatments (including birth control pills)

Arterial thromboembolism is strongly connected to the same risks associated with heart disease:

  • Obesity
  • Older age
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Recent surgery
  • Previous stroke of cardiovascular disease
  • Mitral stenosis (a type of heart valve disease)
  • Atrial fibrillation (the rapid, irregular rhythm of the heart’s atrial valves)

Risk Factors for Thromboembolic Disorders

  • Injury to a vein due to bone fracture or surgery
  • Infection
  • Slow blood flow from immobilization
  • Genetics and family history of VTE
  • High estrogen due to pregnancy, birth control or hormone replacement therapy
  • Blood clotting conditions, including Factor V Leiden disease, polycythemia vera and sickle cell disease
  • Certain chronic illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Lifestyle factors, including smoking, obesity and lack of exercise
  • Age (VTE is most common in seniors, perhaps due to higher rates of illness and lifestyle factors.)

Treatment, Management, and Prevention of Thromboembolic Disorders

Thromboembolism has many risk factors, and not all can be managed. But in general, movement is the easiest prevention. Since most occur in the legs, you can mitigate a lot of risk by circulating blood in your legs. If you sit a lot for work or travel, get up and walk or exercise your leg muscles periodically to keep blood from pooling. If you’ve been sick or recovering from surgery, getting up and moving as soon as possible will help reduce the risk of clots. Exercise will also help you keep stress levels down and maintain a healthy weight, which is other contributing factors.

Medication can be used for the condition:

  • Clopidogrel – is in a class of medications called antiplatelet medications. It works by preventing platelets (a type of blood cell) from collecting and forming clots that may cause a heart attack or stroke.

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