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What are Deep Vein Thrombosis and Thrombophlebitis?

The vascular system can be described as a network of roadways leading to and from the heart, with nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood transported throughout the body by the arteries, and then carried back to the heart via the veins.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and thrombophlebitis are conditions that involve inflammation and blood clot formation in the veins. In 90% of cases, these conditions occur in the leg; however, they also occasionally occur in the arms or, even more rarely, in other parts of the body.

Thrombophlebitis refers to inflammation and blood clot (thrombus) formation occurring in the superficial veins (those closer to the skin surface). The condition is generally caused by irritation to the lining of the vein: for example, prolonged intravenous injection of medications or infection. While there is a very small risk of the blood clot traveling into the deeper veins, serious complications due to thrombophlebitis are extremely rare.

DVT refers to inflammation and blood clots occurring in the deep veins, those farther from the skin surface. DVT forms most commonly as a result of inactivity due to prolonged bed-rest or movement restriction. Other potential causes of DVT are pregnancy, obesity, severe infections, some types of cancers, recent major illness or surgery or conditions in which the blood is thicker than normal.

The most significant danger of DVT is that part of the blood clot will break off, travel along the veins, and get lodged in the lungs. This is called a pulmonary embolism, and while it is an infrequent complication of DVT, a pulmonary embolism can be fatal. DVT can also result in permanent vein damage, leading to a condition referred to post-thrombotic syndrome, which may cause varicose veins, pain and swelling, and potentially skin ulcers in the surrounding area.

How are DVT and Thrombophlebitis Diagnosed?

Thrombophlebitis often causes redness that can be seen over the area of the affected vein. The vein may also feel hard and thick, like a piece of rope. Some people experience swelling of the extremity and heat or pain over the vein. These symptoms sometimes are accompanied by fever if the vein is infected.

Swelling of the leg is the most common symptom of DVT. Some people may also experience pain, particularly when the foot is bent upwards.

Doctors diagnose DVT with the use of ultrasound scanning. Ultrasound will reveal the size and location of a DVT.

How are Thrombophlebitis and DVT Treated?

Treatment for thrombophlebitis generally involves self-care techniques, such as the application of heat or rest and elevation of the area. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen may be helpful, and antibiotics may be prescribed if signs of infection are present.

“Blood thinners” are often used to treat DVT. Blood thinners are medications that help to prevent the blood clot from getting bigger and prevent new clots from forming in the area. They also help to stabilize the blood clot and prevent it from breaking off and traveling to other parts of the body. These drugs may initially be given by injection; patients may then have to continue to take them orally for some time. Initially, bed-rest with elevation of the extremity for a few days may be necessary. An elastic bandage or compression stocking may be used to wrap the extremity and may need to be worn for several months.