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Manhattan Cardiology

What Is Blood Clotting?

When you receive an injury which breaches one of the blood vessels, blood cells called platelets initiate the coagulation of blood cells and proteins into a gel-like clot around the wound in order to stop the bleeding. This is a vitally important function of the circulatory system, and in most cases clots will break down after an injury has fully healed. However, in some cases your body will create too many blood clots or a blood clot which does not dissolve normally, or a blood clot will form in a part of the bloodstream where it is not needed, causing a risk of potentially serious complications from blockages in the blood vessels.

Clots can form in veins or arteries and may be stationary (thrombosis) or in motion through the bloodstream (embolism). Embolisms are particularly dangerous, posing a more unpredictable health threat than thrombosis. Blood clots most commonly occur in the arms and legs, but can become lodged in the abdomen, lungs, or brain.

What Causes Blood Clots?

Under ordinary circumstances, blood clots form when platelets contact a break in the wall of a blood vessel. Sometimes, potentially dangerous blood clots can form when a plaque deposit in the bloodstream bursts. Insufficient blood flow can also lead to a risk of blood pooling and coagulating unnecessarily in the case of conditions such as atrial fibrillation (Afib) and deep vein thrombosis.

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of A Blood Clot?

A blood clot in the bloodstream will often have few or no symptoms, and it can often be difficult to identify the issue before it becomes serious. Symptoms will depend on where in the body the blood clot is located. Some things to watch out for include:

  • Swelling/puffiness: If you have a blood clot in an arm or leg, you may notice swelling in the area of the clot or throughout the entire limb.
  • Numbness: A blood clot may restrict blood flow to an arm or leg, causing itching, tingling, or loss of feeling.
  • Discoloration: Depending on the severity of the obstruction to blood flow, you may notice the skin in the affected area turning reddish or bluish in color.
  • Pain: You may notice growing pain and discomfort in the location where the clot is lodged, including stomach ache in the case of an abdominal clot. Painful areas in the arm or leg may feel warm to the touch.
  • Difficulty breathing: Shortness of breath, painful breathing, and severe cough (sometimes coughing up blood), are all possible signs of a pulmonary embolism, which occurs when a blood clot travels to the lungs. This issue can be fatal if not immediately addressed.
  • Heart attack symptoms: Sweating, pain in the chest which may extend down the left arm, and shortness of breath could be the result of a blood clot which has found its way to the chest. A heart attack is a medical emergency and if you experience these symptoms you should call 911 immediately.
  • Stroke symptoms: A blood clot which has moved to the brain causes stroke, a life-threatening cardiac event characterized by trouble speaking, blurred vision, and a sudden, splitting headache. This is also an emergency condition which warrants swift medical intervention.

What Are The Risk Factors of Blood Clotting?

There are a number of events which may cause formation of a blood clot, as well as underlying factors that may predispose you to a higher risk of complications. Blood clotting can be caused by serious injuries or events which cause significant physical trauma, such as childbirth or some surgeries. Clotting can also be caused by certain circulatory or respiratory infections, including COVID-19.

You are at a higher risk of complications from a blood clot if you have a condition which negatively impacts circulation, such as atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, afib, or diabetes. Family history may also play into the equation, and you should be aware if any close relatives have had blood clot-related medical events such as strokes. Your risk is also heightened if you smoke cigarettes, drink heavily, or spend a great deal of time seated in the same position.

How is a Blood Clot Diagnosed?

If possible, your doctor will begin by reviewing your family and personal medical history to try and ascertain the cause and nature of the issue. A physical examination can help to verify symptoms and locate the obstruction. Diagnostic procedures will depend on where the blood clot has become lodged, and may include CT scans or vascular ultrasound testing.

What Are Possible Treatments For A Blood Clot?

Treatment depends, once again, upon the location of the blood clot and the seriousness of the issue. A clot that has become lodged in an artery is considered very serious, as it could potentially cause an obstruction that deprives vital organs of necessary blood flow. Clots considered to be potentially fatal are typically removed immediately either through surgery or catheter-directed thrombolysis, a procedure which introduces agents directly into the bloodstream which break up the clot.

Venous blood clots (located in the veins) which are not deemed to be immediately life-threatening can usually be treated through less aggressive means, such as a prescription for blood thinning medication.

There are certain procedures which your doctor may recommend if you are at an unusually high risk of further issues caused by blood clots. Implants such as a stent or vena cava filter can help to prevent future blockages and ensure that the bloodstream remains unobstructed.

Are There Preventative Steps or Measures To Avoid Complications From Blood Clotting?

There are some factors beyond your control which may increase your susceptibility to blood clot-related complications, but you can reduce your risk by living an active lifestyle, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, drinking enough water, and eating a healthy diet. It’s also important to manage any conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure which may contribute to dangerous clotting.

What Are The Risks If a Blood Clot Is Left Untreated?

The risk posed by blood clots depends on where they are formed and where they end up traveling in the bloodstream. Clots located in the arms and legs can cause deep vein thrombosis, which may cause serious damage to the affected limb. The biggest risk is that part of the clot will break away and travel through the bloodstream to the heart, brain, or lungs. This can cause life-threatening events such as pulmonary embolism, heart attack, or stroke.

Are There Other Related Conditions To Blood Clots?

You are at a greater risk of dangerous blood clotting if you have diabetes, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, or atrial fibrillation. If not treated, blood clots can cause serious medical problems including deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, heart attack, and stroke.

Key Takeaways About Blood Clots

Blood clotting is a critical part of our body’s natural healing response to injury which takes place to stop bleeding. It is generally not harmful unless the clots do not properly dissolve after healing has completed, or if they become dislodged from the point of the injury. This can be dangerous, as a clot may block blood flow to important organs or travel through the bloodstream to become lodged in the lungs, chest, or brain, which may result in a possibly fatal medical emergency such as a heart attack or stroke.

Meet Manhattan Cardiology

Mary Greene, MD is a cardiologist who specializes in Coronary and Peripheral Vascular Procedures, Echocardiography and Nuclear Cardiology, and Cardiovascular Disease Medicine. She is board-certified in Internal Medicine, Cardiovascular Disease, Echocardiography, Nuclear Cardiography, and RPVI. After completing her undergraduate degree in biochemistry at SUNY Binghamton,... Learn More »