Four years ago, when Sara Wyen was 29, she joined her training group for a Saturday morning run. Afterward, her left knee starting hurting badly. “I struggled with a knee injury so I was used to that type of pain,” she says.
She treated it with rest, ice, and a hot shower, but her discomfort got worse. By Sunday morning Wyen couldn’t walk. She also had shortness of breath and pain in her side.
“I couldn’t speak in complete sentences,” she says. “I had to stop to catch my breath.” That’s when she knew something was very wrong.
Wyen called her doctor. He told her to go to the ER right away. There, she got news she never expected to hear: She had a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in her lung. It was caused by deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot in her leg.
What Is DVT?
“[It] occurs when a blood clot forms in the veins located deep in the middle of the leg,” says Jack Ansell, MD, professor of medicine at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. “It can also occur in other parts of the body, such as the arm or the abdomen, but the leg is the most common location. The major danger with DVT is what happens when a piece of the blood clot breaks off and travels to an artery in the lungs.”
During Wyen’s hospital stay, doctors learned the cause of her DVT. She has an autoimmune disease that increases her chances of getting blood clots.
A number of conditions can raise your odds of getting DVT. Some of them include:
- Bone fractures
- Sitting for a long time, like on an airplane
- Birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
- Chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and cancer
- Family history of DVT
- Previous DVT or pulmonary embolism
- Genetic disorders that affect blood clotting
Randy Fenninger, 68, knows how scary DVT can be. In 2002, the Vienna, VA, resident flew to Chicago in the morning. He spent all day at a desk and in meetings. He flew back home that night.
Before long, Fenninger felt severe pain in his upper chest, shoulders, and neck. “Every time I took a breath it felt like someone stuck a knife into my lungs,” he says.
He went to the ER. Doctors found that he had multiple blood clots in each lung due to DVT. “I don’t know how long the clot was there, but I didn’t have any symptoms in my leg.”
Like Fenninger, many people with DVT don’t feel any of those symptoms. Only about half of people with the condition notice warning signs that occur in the leg and include:
“The hallmark of DVT is that these symptoms occur in only one leg,” says Lawrence Mueller, MD, a vascular surgeon at Garden State Vein Care. “Heart problems and liver or kidney disease can cause similar symptoms, but they affect both legs.”
They may happen suddenly or develop slowly over time, Ansell says.
A blood clot that starts in your leg can travel to your lungs, and the result could be fatal. Call 911 right away of you have any of these symptoms:
Both DVT and pulmonary embolisms are medical emergencies. Quick treatment can save your life.
Life After DVT
Even with treatment, about 30% of people who have deep vein thrombosis experience long-term effects. This is called post-thrombotic syndrome. It happens when the blood clot damages valves in your vein where the blood clot happened.
These are some symptoms of post-thrombotic syndrome:
- Discoloration of the skin
- Ulcers in the part of the body affected
Today, Fenninger lives with many of these symptoms. “I experience swelling in my ankles and discoloration of my skin. It sometimes looks like my lower ankles are rust-colored because of blood pooling in the veins.”
Before their emergencies, Wyen and Fenninger didn’t think they could be at risk. Both were healthy and active. Wyen says she wants her story to serve as a warning to other people.
“What I hope others can take away from my experience is that they should know the signs and symptoms of DVT. If something doesn’t seem right with your body, get it checked out right away. I knew that what I was feeling wasn’t normal, but I figured that since I was young and healthy I must be fine. Listen to what your body is telling you, because if you have any signs of DVT or pulmonary embolism, it can be deadly in a matter of moments.”