We hear of life-threatening blood clots in a young professional basketball player – Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat – who was seemingly in robust, if not full-gladiatorial health. This came on the heels of the death of a former NBA player, Jerome Kersey, also resulting from blood clots.
What’s this about?
Blood clots are one of the better tricks the body knows how to do. Taken for granted by almost everyone, the presence of solid blood (a clot) where it shouldn’t be, or the lack of clot where there should be, is a guaranteed source of great misfortune, and in some cases can even result in death.
Continued life as we know it, is utterly dependent on blood going round and round. Blood provides vital oxygen and nutrition, which are not stored at the cell level. Interrupt this constant supply and cells start dying. Dying cells in the heart and brain are particularly missed
Stopping bleeding is equally important. The human race is a bellicose one. No doubt, the first Neanderthal to pick up a stick, clubbed some snaggle-toothed rabbit to eat it, and used it next on some grunt in the next cave he didn’t like.
Having been wounded, rather than having your entire circulating blood volume pump out in the mud, the body conveniently turns liquid into solid to plug the damaged vessels. The leakage stops and life goes on.
This system needs to be a pretty reliable – the clots are always on the outside and never on the inside. Screw-ups are deadly.
There is a whole list of blood factors that are involved in preventing clotting. These beautiful cascades of biological molecules are fine-tuned by millions of years of modifications (of interest only to a few biochemists). This is all quite invisible as long as everything works (how often do we say that in life?).
But when it doesn’t …
Blood clots describe the abnormal clotting of blood inside the veins of the lower leg. The medical name for this is Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT).
Large veins deep in the lower legs carry blood back to the heart. This is a low-pressure system, so it is prone to blockage. Movement of the legs is one of the things that keep the blood moving. Several common medical conditions make the blood a little thicker and more prone to clot: being postnatal (just having a baby), smoking, some cancers, injury and prolonged sitting.
The trouble is these leg veins have a straight shot to the heart and lungs.
A blood clot is a cast of the inside of the vein. It’s about as thick as a soda straw, and can be 2, 4, or 8 inches long. A little movement can make it break free, and then it floats up through the heart and gets pumped into the lungs, which is where the trouble starts.
This huge clot blocks off much of the blood from getting to the lungs. This causes chest pain, and for all the world looks like a heart attack. It can even be rapidly fatal. If you are lucky enough to get through the first 20 minutes, and receive a good diagnosis, blood thinners or clot dissolvers can save you.
The possibility of getting a blood clot is one more reason to keep moving in life – it keeps those vital humors circulating.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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