EXCLUSIVE: Five things athletes should know about clotting according to an expert

Updated on Sep 09, 2021 08:21 AM IST  |  63K
EXCLUSIVE: Five things athletes should know about clotting according to an expert

What do tennis superstar Serena Williams and cricketing great Steve Waugh have in common? Both have had blood clots. It might come as a surprise that blood clots can affect healthy and fit sportspeople but blood clots may affect anyone across age groups.

What are blood clots?
The term ‘thrombosis’ describes clots in blood vessels. When blood clots occur in the veins this is called venous thromboembolism (VTE). These clots can form in the deep veins of the legs (‘deep vein thrombosis or DVT). If part of the clot breaks off and travels to the lung, this is called ‘pulmonary embolism’ or PE, which can sometimes be life-threatening.

Why blood clots occur:
Blood clots occur due to a combination of a person’s own risks and risk factors in the world around them. There might be a genetic tendency to blood clots and certain physical characteristics such as being tall or overweight also increase risk. Very occasionally athletes might have anatomical variations within their chest or pelvis that might cause narrowing of veins and disturb blood flow, particularly while undertaking certain movements. External risk factors such as dehydration, long haul travel, drugs (both legal and illegal!) and injuries can also tilt the balance towards thrombosis.

How to spot the symptoms:
VTE is the third most common cardiovascular problem after heart attack and strokes and it is good to be aware of the symptoms of VTE, which might in athletes mimic symptoms of injury such as a muscle tear. Typical symptoms of DVT are redness, pain and swelling of the leg and PE can present with breathlessness, sharp chest pain or even fainting.  

Preventing blood clots:
Healthy lifestyle measures are key to preventing blood clots. For athletes, this means staying active during long journeys and ensuring adequate water intake during and after exercise.  They should know about risk factors for clots such as a family history of blood clots or medication-related risk for instance with the contraceptive pill. A small number of athletes might have anatomical abnormalities that increase blood clot risk but these usually are only discovered after the clot has happened and might sometimes need to be treated surgically. Immobilization after injury makes the blood flow sluggish and increases the risk of a clot - sometimes special preventive measures are required such as the use of blood thinners, particularly in those with extra risk factors.

Prompt medical attention is vital if a clot is suspected and treatment usually takes the forms of blood thinners or anticoagulants for a minimum of 3 months, sometimes longer. Following VTE, athletes would gradually build up to normal activities. Those involved in contact sports usually have to avoid such activities while on anticoagulants because of bleeding risk and treatment might need to be tailored to their specific needs.

About the author: Professor Roopen Arya, India Spokesperson, World Thrombosis Day, Professor of Thrombosis and Haemostasis, King’s College Hospital, London.

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