By Sheila Dwyer, Veins1 Staff,
A British woman flying 12,000 miles home from Australia died recently of a pulmonary embolism attributed to deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Minutes after her Qantas flight arrived at Heathrow Airport, Emma Christofferson collapsed. She never regained consciousness, and died before reaching hospital.
DVT is a rare condition of the deep veins. It may occur when one or more blood clots in an artery or deep vein form. Often, the blood clots dissolve on their own and do not pose a serious health threat—but not always. However, if a blood clot in the leg breaks off and moves to the heart or lungs, stroke and sudden death are likely results.
Unfortunately, Christofferson became the most recent victim of what some have dubbed “economy class syndrome.” DVT is often caused by long periods spent in cramped conditions, with no place to stretch or walk. The seating in the economy section of an airplane is notoriously tight, which can restrict movement and cause blood clot formation and, possibly, DVT.
Qantas and other airlines advise their customers to keep the circulation going in their legs by exercising their feet and legs for a few minutes every hour. Although this cannot absolutely prevent DVT, it will reduce the risk.
Christofferson did not fit the profile of the typical DVT victim. She was 28 years old and, from all reports, was in good health. There was some suggestion, however, that she had been scuba diving during her time in Australia. Decompression sickness can occur if a person flies within 24 hours of scuba diving; this may have contributed to her death.
Although anyone can develop blood clots, some people are at a higher risk than others. Obesity, pregnancy, cigarette smoking, varicose veins, and coronary artery disease all put people at a higher risk for blood clots, and thus, DVT. Also, recent bed rest or general anesthesia can lead to blood clots. People with any of these risk factors should always consult a doctor before boarding an airplane.
Travel experts recommend that passengers take these precautions when on an airplane:
- Sit on an aisle for extra leg room
- Get up and walk at least once per hour
- Massage your feet, ankles, legs, and knees while seated to stimulate blood circulation
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated; avoid alcohol and caffeine for the same reason
- Wear loose clothing; avoid clothing that is tight below the knees
- High-risk flyers should consult a doctor to see if taking aspirin before a flight to thin the blood will be beneficial
DVT may be responsible for as many as 100 deaths around the world every year. Up to 30,000 people in the UK suffer from air-related blood clots annually as well (most of these dissolve). Airplane travelers need to empower themselves with as much information as they can get about blood clots prevention.