TUESDAY, March 6, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Vice President Dick Cheney's diagnosis of a blood clot in his leg has focused needed attention on this common and potentially life-threatening problem, heart experts say.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is caused by the appearance of a clot in a larger vein, typically in the leg. The clot can break off and travel through the bloodstream before lodging in the lungs, brain, heart, or other organ, causing severe damage or death.
DVT is typically referred to as "economy class syndrome" because it can strike people who travel long distances on a plane. But it also poses risks to anyone who has endured prolonged sitting or bed rest. Other risk factors include heart disease; recent surgery or trauma (especially hip, knee or gynecological surgery); fractures; childbirth within the last six months; and use of medications such as estrogen and birth control pills, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
"DVT ranges from a minimal inconvenience to something that is potentially life-threatening," said Dr. Stephen Siegel, a cardiologist at New York University Medical Center and a clinical assistant professor at NYU School of Medicine.
A typical symptom of DVT is a continuous pain in the calf, Siegel said. "It is frequently associated with some redness or point tenderness, a streak over the vein can sometimes be seen, and sometimes the leg becomes swollen," he said.
In severe cases, a patient can have difficulty breathing, chest pain or cough up blood, Siegel added.
Cheney's condition, which was made public Tuesday, may have been brought on by his 25,000-mile trip to Asia last week, despite the comfort of Air Force Two.
In addition, he has had a long history of heart ailments. He had four heart attacks before he assumed office in 2001. He has an implanted defibrillator to regulate his heartbeat if necessary. And, in 2005, he underwent six hours of surgery on both legs to repair a kind of aneurysm, a ballooning weak spot in an artery that can burst if left untreated.
"The severity of the problem depends on how early it is diagnosed and how early one gets treatment and how far it has progressed," Siegel said.
DVT is typically treated with blood thinners, as was done in Cheney's case. "Blood thinners keep the clot from growing and allow time for the body to heal itself," Siegel said.
If any symptoms of DVT develop, Siegel's advice is to see a doctor for a simple imaging test that can easily diagnose the condition.
DVT can strike anyone, Siegel said. "Women may be more prone to it because of birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy," he said.
In April 2003, NBC News correspondent David Bloom died suddenly of DVT while covering the war in Iraq. He'd been traveling in a military vehicle whose interior was designed for safety, not comfort, and had reportedly complained of pains in his legs, a classic warning sign for a blood clot.
Former President Richard Nixon was also reported to have suffered DVT on a 1972 flight to the Soviet Union after visiting China, which was given as the reason for his inability to give evidence at the Watergate inquiry. Dan Quayle, a former vice-president, was also reported to have suffered DVT in 1994, when he developed a leg clot that traveled to his lung soon after a series of airplane trips.
For more information on DVT, visit the National Library of Medicine.