Blood clots kill one in four people worldwide. That’s right, one in four deaths on this planet are caused by blood clots, also known by the medical term thrombosis. If you’re surprised by these blood clot facts, you’re not alone. A survey that I and others conducted with the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis steering committee of the United States, along with eight other countries from North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, found that public awareness of thrombosis was low overall (at 68 percent), and for venous thromboembolism (VTE) in particular (at about 50 percent) — much lower than awareness of other health conditions.
Far more people surveyed were aware of high blood pressure, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and AIDS (90 percent, 85 percent, 82 percent, and 87 percent, respectively).
Only 45 percent of people who responded to the survey were aware that blood clots are preventable. Few knew the major risk factors for VTE, like hospitalization, surgery, and cancer (awareness of 25 percent, 36 percent, and 16 percent, respectively).
Thrombosis is the underlying cause of heart attack, most strokes, and venous thromboembolism (VTE), a condition in which blood clots form in the deep veins of the leg and can travel in the circulatory system to lodge in the lungs. VTE is often fatal, but it’s also preventable. Unfortunately, most patients who die from VTE do so suddenly, with little or no warning. Don’t miss signs and symptoms that could mean a dangerous blood clot: unexplained shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, rapid pulse, or coughing up blood.
VTE Is Surprisingly Common
Although about half of us haven’t heard of VTE, it’s a very common condition. Each year, VTE affects 1 to 3 out of every 1,000 people. Among those who are age 70 or older, this increases to between 2 and 7 per 1,000.
An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 people die from VTE each year in the United States, and more than 500,000 die each year in Europe. VTE causes more deaths each year in the United States and Europe than breast cancer, HIV disease, and motor vehicle crashes — combined.
According to a recent study by the World Health Organization and others, VTE associated with hospitalization was the leading cause of premature death, as well as years lived with disability, in low- and middle-income countries. And VTE was the second most common cause in high-income countries across the globe. VTE is responsible for more deaths and disability than hospital-associated pneumonia, catheter-related bloodstream infections, and adverse drug events.
VTE Survivors and Long-Term Disabilities
VTE contributes to chronic disability for people who have non-fatal clots in the legs or lungs. This post-thrombotic syndrome, or PTS, is a painful and often disabling complication of clots in the deep veins of the leg. The syndrome results in chronic pain and swelling in the leg after periods of standing and may lead to the development of skin ulcers. This condition impairs quality of life and may also limit a person’s ability to work.
Blood clots in the lung, especially recurrent clots, may cause chronic pulmonary hypertension — a condition in which the pressure in the lung arteries is chronically elevated, leading to symptoms such as shortness of breath when exercising and impaired heart function. These limit the patient’s activity and may require major surgery.
VTE Adds Billions in Healthcare Costs
VTE is also a major burden to our healthcare system. A study published in 2015 in Thrombosis Research found that new cases of VTE in the United States are responsible for $7 to $10 billion in direct medical costs yearly.
This amount is similar to the entire annual budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the federal agency charged with protecting and promoting the public health of our nation. Added to this are the downstream costs for patients who develop recurrent VTE and the complications of post-thrombotic syndrome, or pulmonary hypertension.
The good news is that many, if not most, cases of VTE are preventable.
Start by understanding VTE risk factors:
- Prolonged immobility
- Using estrogen-containing medications (birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy)
Also, certain genetic conditions, like the blood clotting disorder Factor V Leiden, predispose you to getting blood clots. Know your family history, especially its history of blood clots.
Be proactive. If you’re admitted to the hospital, or if you are having surgery, ask your doctor for a VTE risk assessment. Also ask whether you may be a candidate for preventive methods, such as anti-clotting medication (also known as blood thinners).
By being informed and engaging with your doctor and other health professionals, you can help reduce your risk of VTE, and in turn, help reduce the burden of death and disability from this largely preventable thrombosis disorder.
That is a wonderful gift to give yourself and your family. For more information, please visit our World Thrombosis Day site, which supports the World Health Assembly’s global target of a 25 percent drop in premature deaths from non-infectious diseases by 2025.