Preventing Deep Vein Thrombosis After Surgery

illustration of a blood clot

 SCIEPRO/Getty Images

A blood clot may not seem like a big deal to someone who hasn’t experienced one, or to someone who has had a minor blood clot in their leg that was easily treated with medication. In fact, a tiny blood clot may seem like a minor inconvenience compared to the other issues a patient experiences after surgery, such as pain at the site of the incision or needing a wheelchair for a few weeks.

Blood clots really are a very serious business and they don’t just hang out in the lower legs.

They are particularly likely to develop in the postoperative period, when people tend to be relatively immobile, and may not be eating and drinking normally. So hospitals routinely take extra steps to prevent blood clots in people who have just had surgery. An embolism is the name given to a clot that breaks free from the area where it first started and begins to travel through the blood vessels of the body. The most severe embolisms are ones that travel to the lungs. It is the severity of blood clots, along with how preventable they are, that makes hospital staff seem a bit blood clot obsessed at times. 

Types of Blood Clots

A very serious blood-clot-related condition is the pulmonary embolism. These are blood clots that travel to the blood vessels of the lungs and they are a life-threatening emergency. These blood clots prevent blood from reaching the lungs and being oxygenated. The signs and symptoms of a pulmonary embolism range from difficult to detect to very painful, causing severe shortness of breath. Unfortunately, the condition results in death in approximately 30% of the people who develop this type of clot.

Deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, are the most common types of blood clots. This type of clot forms in the legs and typically happens after the blood flow in the legs is reduced. Clots are often associated with surgery, where the person is lying still during the procedure and potentially for many hours after the surgery is over, but can also form when an individual is still for long periods of time, such as during a trip on an airplane, or a long trip by car.

Prevention of Blood Clots

Prevention of blood clots, as you can see, is extremely important to long-term good health. It may seem like hospital staff is overly concerned about blood clots, but preventing a stroke or pulmonary embolism is well worth the effort, even if it seems like a nuisance. You may find that the staff asks you questions about previous blood clots and any health conditions you may have, trying to identify any blood clot risk factors you may have.

If you are a hospital patient, you may be encouraged to get up and walk shortly after your surgical procedure. This may be uncomfortable or even painful in the days following surgery, but walking is one of the best ways to prevent a blood clot and helps speed recovery.

You may also be encouraged to drink fluids, even though that may mean you have to walk to the bathroom more often which you may prefer not to do because walking can be painful immediately after surgery. Think of drinking fluids as an oil change for your body. Old oil gets sticky and makes your car work harder, new oil keeps everything running smoothly. The same can be said for water, it helps keep your system running smoothly (it can also help prevent constipation!) and can help keep your blood “thin.”

In the hospital, you may find that the staff encourages you to wear sequential compression devices or SCDs. These are fabric panels that are wrapped around your lower legs and squeeze your legs periodically. The squeezing motion, like walking, helps prevent clots from forming in your legs. Some patients find them annoying, but they are far less irritating than a blood clot. Try to think of them as a personal masseuse for your legs.

In addition to frequent walking and good hydration, the hospital staff may use blood thinners to prevent clots. Blood thinners are one of many medications commonly used after surgery. While taking a blood thinner may mean an extra pill, a shot in your abdomen or an extra medication in your IV. These medications are effective at preventing blood clots, but they aren’t as effective alone as they are when they are combined with walking and drinking ample fluids.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.