Long Car, Plane Rides Pose Risk of Clots

Traveling may be good for the soul, but experts say long trips are not always good for your health.

Spending extended periods of time in the car or on a plane can put you at risk for deep vein thrombosis, a serious blood clot that can form in the lower legs and thighs. When sitting for a long period of time, particularly in a cramped space, circulation in the legs is limited, which can lead to the formation of a blood clot. Once formed, a blood clot in a deep vein can break off and travel through the bloodstream.

The loose clot (a.k.a. “embolus”) can travel to an artery in the lungs and block blood flow, a condition known as pulmonary embolism. A pulmonary embolism causes damage to the lungs and other organs in the body, and it can be fatal. Symptoms of deep vein thrombosis include pain and tenderness, redness, increased warmth in one leg, and swelling.

A blood clot in the thigh is the most likely to break off and cause pulmonary embolism than clots in other parts of the body, making traveling for long periods of time particularly dangerous. However, there are simple and effective ways to reduce the risk of blood clots and pulmonary embolism.

“If you plan to travel overseas or cross country, make sure you get up and walk around at least every two hours, and try not to sleep more than four hours at a time,” said Dr. Alan Lumsden, chief of cardiovascular surgery at Houston Methodist Hospital’s heart and vascular center, in a hospital news release. “Drink plenty of water or juices, wear loose-fitting clothing, eat light meals, and limit alcohol consumption.”

It is also recommended to drink plenty of water or juice, wear loose-fitting clothing, eat light meals, and limit alcohol consumption. Be careful about using leg rests that compress the calf or the back of the knees, and make sure to breathe deeply frequently. For the elderly and those with poor circulation, it is helpful to wear compression stockings, which aid circulation and prevent clots from forming in deep veins; it can also help to request an exit row or bulkhead seat to increase leg room. Pregnant women and those with a history of blood clots, heart disease, or cancer should consult a doctor before taking a long trip.

About 2 million Americans develop deep vein thrombosis every year, contributing to nearly 200,000 fatalities annually.

“It’s a very serious condition that can simply be avoided by getting up and moving around,” Lumsden said.

If you are unable to get up and move around every couple of hours, try one of the following exercises instead:

  • Move the knee up to the chest and hold for at least 15 seconds
  • Put both feet flat on the floor and point them upward
  • Put both feet flat on the floor and lift both heels as high as possible
  • Extend both legs and move both feet back and forth in a circle