Leg Cramp or DVT?

Have you ever been on a long-distance airplane ride and felt a cramp in your leg? It could be a flight as long as a trans-Atlantic flight from one continent into another, or even flying from one coast to another here in the United States. For some people, that pain in their leg is more than just a cramp that should be rubbed out, but it’s actually a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).  DVT was called the “economy class syndrome” in an effort to identify blood clots that formed in the leg after sitting for prolonged periods in a cramp setting such as the economy section on an airplane. Before DVT was associated with passengers of long-distance airplane rides, British physicians noticed similar symptoms found in people who were huddled in air-raid shelter’s during World War II.

It was about 10 years ago that deep vein thrombosis had been considered a secret killer.  The director of Wright State University’s Aerospace medicine program, Dr. Mohler, said that DVT can sneak up on people when they least expect it.  Additionally, DVT can go undetected by medical professionals during an exam because it mimics the symptoms of other diseases. The most notable symptoms of DVT is a severe pain in your leg. Although it feels like a cramp, what’s actually happening is a deep vein clot is forming which may cause blood to sludge through the vein when leg muscles are not being used. Often time, the pain felt during a long airline plane ride will subside once the plane lands. But for some people, it’s indicative of a greater problem.

The prevalence of deep vein thrombosis in passengers of long-distance airplane rides it’s not specifically known. In 1986 study was done at Heathrow airport in London which found that of the 61 people who suddenly died after a long-distance plane ride, 18% of them were due to blood clots.  A more notable person to have suffered DVT was Vice President Dan Quayle in 1994 when he made several bicoastal trips back to back.

There are some well-known risk factors one should be aware of to avoid developing deep vein clot’s while flying in an airplane. Many of these risks are associated with people who are obese, smokers, those with a history of cancer, history of blood clots, or someone who underwent general anesthesia recently. Although the airline industry probably has no intention of creating more space in between their seats so space is not so confined, there are some things one can do to prevent economy class syndrome on long-distance airplane rides.

  1. Try to book an exit row, sit in a seat just behind a wall in the plane, or pick an aisle seat that will allow you to stretch when the beverage cart isn’t coming through.
  2. Avoid wearing clothing that might restrict blood circulation such as knee length stockings and tightfitting clothes. Not only will loose-fitting clothes make your ride more comfortable, it will also work against the development of DVT while in the air.
  3. If you’re a nervous flyer there may be some temptation to drink alcohol while in flight, but alcohol and caffeine create dehydration during long-distance flights. After you pass through security, buy bottled water to keep you hydrated. Staying hydrated helps you stave off the development of blood clots.
  4. If possible, walk up and down the aisles to stretch her legs and circulate the flow of blood. This may be difficult if the plane is completely full and lots of other people are also getting up to walk around. If you find a chance to get up take advantage of it because movement in the air will keep your muscles moving and the blood flowing.
  5. If you’re not able to get up and walk during the flight, take a moment to massage your legs, your feet, and your knees. This helps to push blood back up toward the heart.
  6. Last but not least, clench your toes multiple times. This form of exercise keeps the blood flowing.

When a person develops deep vein thrombosis as a result of long-distance travel in an airplane it’s usually indicative of a larger problem that was exacerbated by their trip. It’s important for anybody who feels severe pain in the legs to seek medical help after your trip so that your doctor can run some tests to ensure that DVT is not developing. If blood clots are an untreated, preexisting condition for you, it may be better to find another mode of transportation to get to your destination.



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