Complications of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) complications are common and can be serious. If you have a clot in a deep vein, you are at risk for DVT complications in your leg as well as other life-threatening problems. Here's what you need to know.
DVT and Pulmonary Embolism
A blood clot in a deep vein can break away and move through the bloodstream. Pulmonary embolism (PE) is what happens if the clot ends up partly or completely blocking a lung artery. This can happen right after the formation of the leg clot, or it may happen days later.
DVT in the leg is the most common cause of pulmonary embolism. At least 10% of patients with deep vein thrombosis have PE. This number may be much higher, though, because three out of four embolisms cause no symptoms and go undiagnosed.
These are signs and symptoms of a pulmonary embolism:
- Sudden cough, which may produce bloody sputum
- Rapid breathing or sudden shortness of breath, even at rest
Chest pain, which may be sharp or stabbing or may be burning, aching, or dull; chest pain may worsen with deep breaths, coughing, eating, or bending
- Sudden rapid heart rate
If you have any of these symptoms of PE, go to the emergency room or call 911 immediately.
If it's suspected you have a pulmonary embolism, you may need hospitalization immediately for emergency treatment. If imaging tests show you do have a pulmonary embolism, you may need both anticoagulant medication, which prevents new clots, and thrombolytic therapy, which dissolves existing clots. You may also need other types of treatment, too.
Pulmonary embolism can lead to even more serious complications, including:
- Heart palpitations (irregular heartbeat)
- Inability of the heart to keep up with the body's demands, called heart failure or cardiogenic shock
- Breathing difficulties
- High blood pressure in the lung arteries, called pulmonary hypertension
It's important to get these pulmonary embolism complications treated right away.
DVT and Postthrombotic Syndrome
Two out of three people with DVT end with a complication called postthrombotic syndrome. When a clot remains too long in the leg vein, it can cause damage to the vein or a valve in the vein. Valve damage can lead to a backflow of blood, called reflux, which causes blood to pool in the leg.
These are signs and symptoms of postthrombotic syndrome:
- Swelling and buildup of fluid, called edema
- Darkened skin color, called hyperpigmentation
- Skin ulcers
- Swollen, sometimes twisted or blue veins, called varicose veins
- Recurring deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism
To prevent postthrombotic syndrome, your doctor may recommend surgical removal of the clot in addition to other types of therapy.
Other DVT Complications
Less common, but very real, risks of DVT include:
- Blood clot in the kidney, called renal vein thrombosis
- Blood clot in the heart, leading to heart attack
- Blood clot in the brain, leading to stroke