As a young woman, my friend Ruth Williams might have been concerned about getting breast cancer, but she never considered the condition that would threaten her life. She was 23, newly married, and living abroad on a mission trip when she began to experience swelling and pain in her right leg. It was a blood clot, or deep vein thrombosis (DVT). “I had no idea that I was at risk,” she said. “If I had continued traveling as planned, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
Emergency treatment saved her life. Anti-coagulant medication and life changes (going off oral contraceptives and limiting long-distance travel) may keep her healthy, but for 900,000 Americans each year, DVTs are an often unseen threat. Many people, including elite athletes, may not realize, for example, that they have a protein-C deficiency.
There’s a stereotype about people who experience life-threatening blood clots. They are elderly, overweight, lethargic, and inactive. But recent headlines challenge this preconceived notion.
In fact, according to Mary Cushman, M.D., M.Sc., professor of medicine and director of the Thrombosis and Hemostasis Program at the University of Vermont, there’s a new profile for those inclined to pulmonary embolism (PE) and DVTs. They are often athletic, muscular, and by all classical terms, physically fit.
Cushman sites a number of high-profile cases involving athletes at the top of their game, such as Serena Williams, Chris Bosh, and Steven Tampkos, who have suffered from potentially life threatening vascular issues. Causes vary and can include genetic conditions, such as protein C deficiency.
As it turns out, athletes who rely on their arms (such as tennis players), may be prone to blood clots because of the muscles can constrict the flow of blood. Likewise, frequent injuries sustained by athletes and the subsequent surgeries they may undergo to correct those injuries place them at higher risk for blood clots. And athletes are frequent flyers too, which is also a risk factor.
In fact, one in nine of these DVTs is fatal. That adds up to 100,000 deaths annually. For reference, breast cancer claims an estimated 40,610 lives and 39,513 succumb to HIV in a given year. And yet, this vascular killer doesn’t get the same play when it comes to research dollars or awareness. Perhaps that will change with the number of highly fit, athletes who have been sidelined with DVT and PE. For unsuspecting victims, like Williams, DVT awareness could be a life-saver.