Athletes and Blood Clots: A Closer Look At The Connection

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why do athletes get blood clots

When you think of an athlete, you probably imagine a young, fit, healthy individual — not someone who has to worry about developing a sudden health condition. Yet, even the most accomplished athletes are at risk of developing blood clots. Read on to learn more about why this occurs and how to reduce your risk of developing a condition such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Turns out that even professional athletes get blood clots. A 2017 study reviewed the injury reports from four professional sports leagues to determine how many athletes had experienced DVT or Pulmonary Embolism (PE). DVT occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein deep within the body. If the clot breaks loose and travels to the lungs it’s called a pulmonary embolism and should be considered a medical emergency.

This study found DVT and/or PE affected the athletes 55 times over the course of the study (some athletes had both conditions.) While the athletes’ ages ranged from 19 to 42, the average age at the time of the DVT or PE was 29 years old. The average time away from play after diagnosis was six months, but some athletes saw their careers end after experiencing a blood clot.

Why Do Athletes Get Blood Clots?

Athletes are subject to the same risk factors that increase your risk of a blood clot, including:

  • Being over the age of 40
  • A recent surgery or broken bone
  • Recent illness that leaves you bedridden
  • Extended travel (common during sports season for pro athletes)
  • Having a medical condition like a stroke, chronic heart disease, high blood pressure, paralysis, cancer, sickle cell disease or a clotting disorder
  • For women, pregnancy or recent birth, and taking birth control pills or hormone supplements
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having varicose veins
  • Family history

In this study, about 40% of the athletes who experienced blood clots had risk factors, including:

  • Family history of a clotting disorder
  • Known clotting disorder
  • An injury or trauma
  • Recent surgery
  • A previous blood clot

What Are the Symptoms of DVT and PE?

About 60% of the athletes with blood clots had no risk factors for developing them, and this is true for other people, as well. Knowing the symptoms of a DVT or a PE can help athletes — or anyone else — get the immediate treatment they require.

The symptoms of a DVT include:

  • Swelling in a limb (usually your leg, but may be an arm, depending on your sport)
  • Pain or tenderness in your limb, which may feel like a cramp
  • Skin discoloration
  • Warm feeling in your limb

Symptoms of pulmonary embolism include:

  • Sudden shortness of breath
  • Sudden rapid heart rate
  • Pain in your chest that is sharp and may worsen with deep breaths
  • Passing out
  • Sudden cough, sometimes accompanied with bloody mucus

Preventing DVTs in Athletes

Fortunately, there are some strategies athletes and everyday exercisers can use to reduce the chance of a DVT or PE, such as:

  • Stretch frequently when traveling long distances
  • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated both during and after travel and sporting events
  • Know your personal risk factors for blood clots, including whether you have a family history of them
  • Pay attention to unusual symptoms and seek medical care if necessary

These simple tips can help prevent blood clots in athletes and people who are active. Avid runners and bicyclists can also utilize these tips and tricks.

I’m Not an Athlete, But I Stay Active – Am I Still at Risk?

Yes. You may surprised to notice bulging varicose veins on your legs or find out you have underlying vein disease, especially if you live an active lifestyle. Due to the fact that visible veins and vein disease are caused by broken valves, even active people who are in good shape can get vein issues.

Regular activity can help improve circulation and promote healthy blood flow; however, successful malfunctioning of the valves are needed to return that blood flow from your legs up towards your hear. Broken or diseased valves will cause blood to pool, resulting in a mild to serious venous condition.

Do you have questions about the risk or treatment of blood clots in athletes or people who are regularly active? Our national network of vein clinics specialize in treating issues of all types, including DVT, and create personalized treatment plans for each of our patients. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you.

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