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Office of the Surgeon General (US); National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (US). The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism. Rockville (MD): Office of the Surgeon General (US); 2008.

Cover of The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism

The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism.

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INTRODUCTION: Definitions of Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) refers to the formation of one or more blood clots (a blood clot is also known as a “thrombus,” while multiple clots are called “thrombi”) in one of the body’s large veins, most commonly in the lower limbs (e.g., lower leg or calf) 1. The clot(s) can cause partial or complete blocking of circulation in the vein, which in some patients leads to pain, swelling, tenderness, discoloration, or redness of the affected area, and skin that is warm to the touch. However, approximately half of all DVT episodes produce few, if any, symptoms 2. For some patients, DVT is an “acute” episode (that is, the symptoms go away once the disease is successfully treated), but roughly 30 percent of patients suffer additional symptoms, including leg pain and swelling, recurrent skin breakdown, and painful ulcers 3–5. In addition, individuals experiencing their first DVT remain at increased risk of subsequent episodes throughout the remainder of their lives 4, 6.

The most serious complication that can arise from DVT is a pulmonary embolism (PE) which occurs in over one-third of DVT patients 7. A PE occurs when a portion of the blood clot breaks loose and travels in the bloodstream, first to the heart and then to the lungs, where it can partially or completely block a pulmonary artery or one of its branches. A PE is a serious, life-threatening complication with signs and symptoms that include: shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, sweating, and/or sharp chest pain (especially during deep breathing). Some patients may cough up blood, while others may develop dangerously low blood pressure and pass out. Pulmonary embolism frequently causes sudden death 6, particularly when one or more of the vessels that supply the lungs with blood are completely blocked by the clot. Those who survive generally do not have any lasting effects because the body’s natural mechanisms tend to resorb (or “lyse”) blood clots. However, in some instances, the blood clot in the lung fails to completely dissolve, leading to a chronic serious complication that can cause chronic shortness of breath and heart failure. DVT and PE are commonly grouped together and sometimes referred to as “venous thromboembolism” (VTE).


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