A Possible Reason to Fly First Class: 'Economy Class Syndrome'
Oct. 25, 2000 -- If claustrophobia and fear of crashes weren't enough to keep you grounded, now there's a new reason to fear flying: It's called "economy class syndrome."
The term is used to describe a consequence of a medical condition known as deep vein thrombosis that occurs when people develop blood clots in the deep veins of their legs. It can happen when the blood does not move through the vessels adequately, for example, after sitting through long flights in cramped airplane seats, which could happen in the section referred to as economy class.
Affecting millions of people worldwide each year, these blood clots can travel to the lungs or other areas, causing strokes, severe organ damage, or death. Such clots have been reported after automobile trips and even after evenings at the theater, but long airplane flights seem to pose a greater risk.
A 1986 study found that during a three-year period at London's HeathrowAirport, 18% of the 61 sudden deaths among long-distance passengers werecaused by such leg blood clots. And researchers from the Hospital Pasteur inNice, France, report that travelers who sit for more than five hours onplanes are more likely to develop blood clots in their leg thannontravelers.
The most famous recent episode occurred in 1994 when former Vice PresidentDan Quayle developed a leg clot that traveled to his lung soon after aseries of airplane trips.
Now, another case of so-called "economy class syndrome" is making headlines.Newspapers report that a 28-year-old women flying from Sydney to Londondeveloped deep vein thrombosis and collapsed and died after reachingHeathrow Airport.
People at high risk for deep vein thrombosis include those with varicose veins or cancer, smokers, individuals with history of leg clots, leg or pelvic surgery or a leg injury, pregnant women, women taking birth-control pills and hormone-replacement therapy, overweight individuals, elderly people and tall people. Warning signs and symptoms include pain, warmth, and swelling in the legs and shortness of breath, experts tell WebMD.
"Risk factors, in addition to being seated in the economy class and having legs confined, are obesity and pregnancy," says Mark Adelman, MD, the director of vascular surgery at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and an assistant professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine.
"Fliers who take birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy may be at increased risk because estrogen increases the risk of clotting," he tells WebMD.
When you sit for a long time without contracting the muscles in your legs, blood can pool in the veins resulting in deep vein thrombosis; that's why getting up and walking around the plane is the best way to prevent a clot from forming, he says.
"If you can't walk [during the] flight, flex your ankle up and down, as if you are stepping on the accelerator in the car," Adelman says. "Do this exercise about 20 times every two to four hours you are in flight."