Preventing Blood Clots While Flying

The following is a guest post by Ted Uhler

How to Prevent Blood Clots While Traveling

I didn’t know her, but I noticed her. Perhaps in her mid-fifties, she looked healthy. She sat in a window seat across from my aisle seat, a few feet away. Like me, she flew solo, surrounded by perfect strangers. The flight was full.

But then it happened. Three hours into our quiet evening flight from the east coast to California, her head dipped down quickly and unnaturally; she didn’t jerk it back up. She was silent and motionless. Most of the other passengers were sleeping. But the passenger sitting right next to her noticed, and he gently shook her shoulder. No response.

He quietly retrieved a flight attendant who brought someone over to check her. The entire process unfolded with very little noise or commotion. Most nearby passengers remained asleep. She had no vital signs and was covered up with a blanket, dead. The flight continued like nothing happened. No one knew why she died. “Heart attack” was mumbled by a few.

Blood Clots Can Be Lethal

There’s plenty of recent research that suggests that people who travel for long distances are at a higher risk of having a blood clot form in their legs, which, if released into the bloodstream, can lead to death. (Note that varicose veins are not a factor and not involved.)

Harvard Medical School released a report a few years ago that concluded that travelers are at triple the risk of getting dangerous blood clots compared to non-travellers. It also found that the longer the trip, the higher the risk: about 25% higher for every two hours of travel on a plane.

Another study, released this year by the American College of Chest Physicians, concluded that the average annual risk among the general public for developing a leg vein blood clot is about 1 in 1,000. However, the number falls to 1 in 500 among people who travel long distances (typically defined as four hours or more, non-stop). The study found that passengers are at the highest risk on trips lasting eight hours or longer, whether plane, bus, train or car.

Our leg muscles help push our blood through our legs and back up through the heart. If we sit in a cramped seat, immobile for too long with leg muscles unused, our blood can pool within our veins and form a clot. It’s called deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or venous thromboembolism (VTE). If the clot breaks off, it can travel through the heart and lodge in an artery in our lung. This is called pulmonary embolism and it can kill. It’s responsible for about 15% of sudden deaths each year.

Preventative Measures to Stay Healthy

Whether young or old, in perfect health or not, if you’re going to be sitting for long periods of time, you can reduce the likelihood of blood clots forming in your leg veins through one very simple solution: Movement! It pushes your blood along, preventing it from pooling. Here’s what to do:
  • While seated, periodically flex and move your feet and leg muscles. 
  • Create little set-and-rep exercises; count silently or use music to set the pace.
  • Contract your calf muscles (point your toes downward). People in healthcare call our calves a “second heart,” due to its ability to set blood in motion.
  • Flex and extend your ankles.
  • Press the toes of your feet on the floor: it moves our shins, thighs and hips. This can prevent clots that are known to form high up in leg veins. 
  • Forget what other passengers may think. Get up and walk around; stretch in the tiny restroom or elsewhere. 
  • “Disturb” others to take care of your needs. Research shows that people in window seats are far more likely to stay put.

I noticed that the woman I saw die seemed bashful and polite. I believe she never got out of her seat, a window seat. It’s also possible that she began to feel ill but decided to say nothing; after all, she probably didn’t want to disturb anyone.

Freelancer Ted Uhler writes for the iNLP Center and other websites that cover health, fitness, wellness, personal development and related topics. The iNLP Center offers NLP training and personal development coaching. Ted, a one-time competitive triathlete, believes strongly in the value of balanced living.

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