A woman walks outside wearing tennis shoes.
Kelly Gmazel, an active runner, injured her leg and then had it immobilized in a boot. She believes that immobilization caused a clot to form in her leg. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

When Kelly Gmazel learned that Gov. Rick Snyder was treated for a blood clot in his leg, she felt for him.

The story quickly caught her attention because she is a few months ahead of him on the recovery cycle for a similar blood clot and knows firsthand how important prompt diagnosis and treatment is for this condition.

“I’m glad to see they quickly diagnosed him and began treatment,” Gmazel said. “I’ve learned how dangerous this can be left untreated.”

A running enthusiast, Gmazel injured her leg training and was fitted with a calf boot to reduce strain on her tendons. It kept her calf muscle immobile.

That immobility likely caused the clot, Gmazel was told.

“The night I sought treatment, I thought I had a Charlie horse that wouldn’t let go,” she said. “The pain was terrible.”

A trip to the emergency department confirmed she had a clot.

Gmazel had a deep vein thrombosis, or DVT.  This condition has become associated with air travel in recent years, but immobility of a limb is at the core of the issue.

Jennifer Watson, MD, a vascular surgeon with Spectrum Health Medical Group’s Vein Centersaid everyone should be aware of this condition.

“The reality is, however, that many factors can contribute to the formation of DVT,” she said. “It’s a blood clot that forms within the deep veins of your muscles, hence, its name. DVTs most commonly form in the legs, but can also develop in the arms, chest or other areas of the body.”

Any blood clot can be life threatening, noted Watson. DVT creates a real risk for blockages in the blood vessels of the lungs  (called a pulmonary embolism). An embolism is when a part of the blood clot breaks off and travels through your bloodstream. That piece of clot can stop blood flow to your lungs, heart, or other organs.

“Untreated, pulmonary embolisms kill up to 20 to 30 percent of the people who have them,” Dr. Watson said. “In fact, more people die each year in the United States from pulmonary embolisms than from breast cancer and AIDS, combined.”

You may be at risk for DVT if you:

  • Routinely experience long periods of sitting or inactivity
  • Frequently travel via air or prolonged driving
  • Are overweight/obese
  • Smoke
  • Are pregnant
  • Have recently had surgery
  • Are taking certain medications that increase the risk of DVTs
  • Have a family history of blood clots

DVT symptoms are shared by many possible causes. If you have any of these symptoms, get checked out right away. Tell your doctor about both the symptoms you have and any of the related risks that apply. He or she will be able to order tests that can determine if DVT can be ruled out. Symptoms include:

  • Swelling in one or both legs (or arms)
  • Discoloration or redness of affected area
  • Pain or tenderness in one or both legs (sometimes only while standing or walking)
  • Heat or warmth in the skin of the affected area
  • “Pinching” chest pain with sudden cough or while trying to take a deep breath

Remember, if your work or lifestyle include risk factors, making an effort to regularly encourage good circulation is important.

The risk of developing DVT while traveling is low, but it does happen. The risk increases if the travel time is longer than four hours or you have other DVT risk factors. During long trips, it may help to:

  • Walk up and down the aisles of the bus, train, or airplane. If traveling by car, stop about every hour and walk around.
  • Move your legs and flex and stretch your feet to improve blood flow in your calves.
  • Wear loose and comfortable clothing.
  • Drink plenty of fluids and avoid alcohol.

If you have risk factors for DVT, your doctor may advise you to wear compression stockings while traveling. Or, he or she may suggest that you take a blood-thinning medicine before traveling.

Being mindful of the risks and signs of DVTs can mean the difference between life and death, Gmazel wants people to know.

“It seems odd that with such a potentially serious condition, they often just send you home with medicine,” she said. “I talked about this at length with my doctor and know what to look for–and that’s comforting. It’s not an easy recovery, but I’m feeling better every week.”

To view more heart & vascular care patient stories, click here.