Symptoms of Deep Vein Thrombosis

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Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a condition in which a blood clot forms in a vein deep below the surface of the skin, usually in the legs or thighs. Pain and swelling are the most common, early symptoms of DVT—but it is possible for a DVT to occur with no signs or symptoms at all. In some cases, signs and symptoms only arise once DVT has progressed and the clot has moved to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism (PE).

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Frequent Symptoms 

Symptoms can often be confused with other health conditions, but there are some signs of DVT that are important to be aware of, especially if you have a risk factor, such as pregnancy, obesity, or you tend to sit for long periods of time:

  • Pain or tenderness in the leg (perhaps only while walking or standing)
  • Swelling in the affected area
  • Redness or discoloration of the skin on the leg

Unfortunately, people who have DVT may not experience symptoms until the clot has progressed to PE.

Signs and symptoms of this life-threatening condition include:

  • Unexplained shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing and fast heart rate (pulse)
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness
  • Pain when taking a deep breath
  • Sudden onset cough
  • Fainting

Complications

Pulmonary embolism (PE) is one of the biggest complications of DVT. Small clots reduce blood flow and can cause damage to lung tissue. If the clot is large and enters your lungs, it can completely stop blood flow and cause sudden death

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between one-third and one-half of people who develop DVT will have long-term complications caused by the damage from the clot.

The damage to a vein after a DVT is called post-thrombotic syndrome (PTS). Swelling, pain, and discoloration are common symptoms of PTS, but in severe cases, it can also cause ulcers and scaling of the skin.

Sometimes, DVT and PE can become chronic. If you've been diagnosed with a DVT or diagnosed with a PE, you'll most likely be prescribed blood thinners, also known as anti-coagulants. These medications help prevent future occurrences. But because these drugs prevent blood clots, they can cause a risk of bleeding.

Treatment guidelines released by the American Society of Hematology in 2020 recommend that patients with chronic DVT or PE take blood thinners indefinitely rather than stopping anticoagulation after primary treatment. Your doctor will evaluate the risks and benefits for you on a continuing basis.

When to See a Doctor

People with DVT report swelling, throbbing pain, redness, and tenderness in the affected area, but about half of the people with DVT don't have any symptoms at all. Some people with DVT also notice enlargement of the veins in one leg or arm, or increased warmth in the area that's swollen. You may also have pain when standing or walking. Many describe the pain as a cramp, like a "Charley horse."

You can try elevating your leg, but if the symptoms persist or get worse, see your doctor for treatment.

Deep Vein Thrombosis Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Man

If a DVT breaks loose and causes PE, it can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing up blood, feeling faint, excessive sweating, fever, pale/discolored skin, and irregular heartbeat. Emergency medical attention is necessary.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a blood clot in the leg feel like?

A limb that has a blood clot will usually be larger than the limb other side and the skin around the clot may feel warmer than the rest of your body. You may also feel cramping (like a Charley horse) and tightness. These signs are similar to a pulled muscle, but a clot won’t improve with rest and ice, while a muscle injury should.

Can you die of deep vein thrombosis?

Yes, a DVT can lead to death. If the blood clot breaks free, it can move to the lungs and cause a pulmonary embolism, which results in shortness of breath, chest pain, and coughing. A pulmonary embolism puts you at risk for serious complications, including death.

Can DVT go away on its own?

Yes, a DVT can resolve on its own. Often, people don't even know they have deep vein thrombosis because they have no symptoms. The blood clot can break up and dissolve on its own within a few months. However, if you have symptoms, it's important that you are evaluated by a doctor and possibly treated to prevent complications and serious health problems.

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Article Sources
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  1. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo. Deep vein thrombosis. Last reviewed June 2015.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is venous thromboembolism? Last reviewed February 7, 2020.

  3. Ortel TL, Neumann I, Ageno W, et al. American Society of Hematology 2020 guidelines for management of venous thromboembolism: Treatment of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. Blood Adv. 2020 Oct 13;4(19):4693-4738. doi:10.1182/bloodadvances.2020001830

  4. National Blood Clot Alliance. Signs and symptoms of blood clots.

  5. National Blood Clot Alliance. Signs and symptoms of blood clots

  6. National Blood Clot Alliance. What are the consequences of DVT?

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