Post-flight blood clots can catch even seasoned travellers by surprise, as travel writer Lindsey Campbell recently found out. She stretches before flights and moves around as much as she can - but after landing, she dismissed her calf pain as probably an injury from hiking.
Photo: Kevork Djansezian (Getty)
Video: It's a modern paradox that we only get the freedom of flying through the air when we are squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder with other humans for the duration. But you probably have a little wiggle room in that seat, and doing some exercises can help relieve that cramped feeling.
Blood clots can form in veins deep inside the leg (hence the name "deep vein thrombosis" or DVT) if your knees are bent and you don't move your legs for hours. The resulting clot forms in your calf, and causes soreness that proceeds to extreme pain. Here's how Campbell describes it:
Our flight landed on a Monday, and I spent the next two days dismissing my calf pain as a pulled muscle. But the pain intensified. It felt as though I had a charley horse in my leg. By Thursday I was limping and fidgeting in meetings, trying without success to get comfortable. When I got home that evening I told my boyfriend, Jim, about the pain, and how it was getting worse. He leaned down to massage my leg and as he pressed down, I jumped, and immediately started crying.
After a flight - or, really, any time - it's good to know the signs to watch out for. If the clot is in your leg, you may experience:
- Swelling in the lower leg
- Cramps or tenderness in the lower leg
- Redness or bruising
- A swollen area that is warm to the touch
Typically the symptoms are only in one leg, or more severe on one side than the other.
What's worse, pieces of the clot can break off and travel to the lungs, where they can interfere with your breathing. These are called pulmonary embolisms, and their symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Pain with breathing, usually described as a stabbing pain
- Rapid heart reate
- Unexplained cough (as in, you don't have a cold or any reason to be coughing), possibly with bloody mucus
Don't dismiss these symptoms, even if you feel like your flight wasn't that long. Campbell's clot probably came from a six-hour flight, where she spent nearly the whole time asleep with her legs crossed. Roomier seats make it easier to change position as you sleep, which is why clots are associated with aeroplanes in the first place (you can move around all you want in your bed at home).
People who are most at risk include those who smoke, take birth control pills, are pregnant, are obese, or have a family or personal history of blood clots. (Some people's blood is just more eager to clot.)
If you've had a clot recently, check with your doctor about whether it's safe to get on another flight and what precautions you should take before doing so. Medication can help prevent future clots, for instance, and you'll likely be put on blood thinners whether you're flying again or not.
Don't freak out, though! Clots are rare, and you can reduce your risk by moving around during the flight (even pedalling your feet under the seat helps). You're also more at risk if you're dehydrated, so try to chug water - hey, those extra bathroom trips will keep you moving, too. And finally, a pair of properly fitted compression stockings can help keep blood from pooling in the veins of your calves.
But no matter what you do, if your calf is sore after a long flight, get it checked out.