Air travel – we love it because the plane can take us thousands of miles in a relatively short period of time. Until the guy next to us starts to snore, a baby cries incessantly, and a flight attendant spills coffee in our lap. Unfortunately, there are much more serious things to pay attention to when aboard than the above mentioned nuisance.
Economy Class Syndrome was firstly reported in 1946 and is defined as venous thromboembolism following air travel. Venous thromboembolism is a combination of deep vein thrombosis (DVT – a formation of a blood clot) and pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lungs). When a blood clot forms in deep veins of the legs, it can break off and travel towards the lungs – where it blocks the blood flow and can potentially be fatal. Now, there are various risk factors of DVT, such as blood disorders, old age, bed rest, pregnancy, trauma, obesity, oral contraceptives, etc., so it doesn’t mean that DVT just magically occurs on your long-haul flight. The problem is that traveling on a plane can add multiple other factors that aggravate the risk of a blood clot formation:
- Limited space per passenger and lack of leg room
- Immobility for long period of time
- Low air/oxygen pressure in the aircraft cabin
- Low humidity of air which leads to dehydration
Especially on flights longer than 6 hours, the lack of mobility seems to be the principal issue – your leg muscles are not being used and so they can’t push blood back to the heart. The blood starts pooling in the veins in your legs, and from there it’s only a step away from the clot being formed.
So, what can I do to prevent venous thromboembolism on a flight? I’m so glad you asked. The American College of Chest Physicians produced a variety of guidelines and recommendations to reduce the risk of DVT and pulmonary embolism when flying:
- Move your legs frequently by walking about the plane
- Periodically flex and extend your ankles, knees, and hips
- Book an aisle seat – your will get more opportunity to move around
- Wear below-the-knee compression stockings – they put pressure on your lower legs and support the blood flow
- If you have a history of DVT, or are at high risk of developing it, consider using anticoagulant therapy or taking blood-thinning aspirin
Keep in mind that the risk of developing a blood clot on a long-haul flight is still very low for a healthy individual. However, if you might fall into a high-risk category because of your medical history, don’t hesitate and discuss your travels with a physician. Flying is stressful enough nowadays, with all the security checks and potential threats, so don’t let yourself worry about possible health risks next time you’re airborne.