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Patient education: Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) (Beyond the Basics)

Menaka Pai, MD, FRCPC
James D Douketis, MD, FRCPC, FACP, FCCP
Section Editor
Lawrence LK Leung, MD
Deputy Editor
Geraldine Finlay, MD
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Venous thrombosis is a condition in which a blood clot (thrombus) forms in a vein. This clot can limit blood flow through the vein, causing swelling and pain. Most commonly, venous thrombosis occurs in the "deep veins" in the legs, thighs, or pelvis (figure 1); this is called a deep vein thrombosis, or DVT.

DVT is the most common type of venous thrombosis. However, a thrombus can form anywhere in the venous system. If a part or all of the blood clot in the vein breaks off from the site where it is formed, it can travel through the venous system; this is called an embolus. If the embolus lodges in the lung, it is called pulmonary embolism (PE), a serious condition that leads to over 50,000 deaths a year in the United States. In most cases, PE is caused when part of a DVT breaks off and lodges in the lung. The term "venous thromboembolism" is sometimes used when discussing both DVT and PE.

This topic review discusses the risk factors, signs and symptoms, diagnostic process, and treatment of a deep vein thrombosis. The diagnosis and treatment of pulmonary embolisms are discussed separately. (See "Patient education: Pulmonary embolism (Beyond the Basics)".)


There are a number of factors that increase a person's risk of developing a deep vein thrombosis.

If a person is found to have a DVT and there is no known medical condition or recent surgery that could have caused the DVT, it is possible that an inherited condition is the cause. This is especially true in people with a family member who has also experienced a DVT or pulmonary embolism. In these cases, testing for an inherited thrombophilia may be recommended. However, finding an inherited thrombophilia does not change the way that doctors treat the venous thromboembolism, and may not increase the chance of the blood clot coming back. (See 'Finding the cause of venous thrombosis' below.)

Medical conditions or medications — Some medical conditions and medications increase a person's risk of developing a blood clot:




Heart failure

Previous DVT or pulmonary embolism (PE)

Increased age

Cancer – Some cancers increase substances in the blood that cause blood to clot.

Kidney problems, such as nephrotic syndrome (see "Patient education: The nephrotic syndrome (Beyond the Basics)")

Certain medications (eg, some birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy, erythropoietin, tamoxifen, thalidomide). The risk of a blood clot is further increased in people who use one of these medications, and also have other risk factors.

Surgery and related conditions — Surgical procedures, especially those involving the hip, pelvis, knee, brain, or spine, as well as trauma (especially if blood vessels are injured) increase a person's risk of developing a blood clot. During the recovery period, this risk often continues because the person is less active. Inactivity during long trips can also increase a person's risk of developing a blood clot. Precautions to reduce the risk of blood clots are discussed below (see 'Deep vein thrombosis prevention' below).

Acquired thrombophilia — Some types of thrombophilia are not inherited, but can still increase a person's risk of developing a blood clot.

Certain disorders of the blood, such as polycythemia vera or essential thrombocythemia

Antiphospholipid antibodies (antibodies in the blood that can affect the clotting process) (see "Patient education: The antiphospholipid syndrome (Beyond the Basics)")

Inherited thrombophilia — Inherited thrombophilia refers to a genetic problem that causes the blood to clot more easily than normal. Various factors in the blood clotting process may be involved, depending on the type of genetic problem present.

An inherited thrombophilia is occasionally present in people with a venous blood clot (ie, thrombus). For example, deficiencies of antithrombin, protein C, or protein S can be found in less than 5 percent of patients who have had an unprovoked venous blood clot (a blood clot not caused by a medical or surgical condition). Other factors, such as factor V Leiden or the prothrombin gene mutation, can occur in approximately 20 to 25 percent of people with a venous blood clot. However, factor V Leiden or the prothrombin gene mutation is also found in up to 5 percent of otherwise healthy Caucasians. Venous thrombosis is infrequent before adolescence in people with inherited thrombophilia.


The signs and symptoms of DVT may be caused by a clot, or may be related to another condition. Imaging studies are needed to determine if a clot is present.

Deep vein thrombosis — Classic symptoms of DVT include swelling, pain, warmth, and redness in the involved leg.

Superficial phlebitis — Superficial phlebitis (SP) causes pain, tenderness, firmness, and/or redness in a vein due to inflammation, infection, and/or a blood clot (thrombus). It is most commonly seen in the inner part of the lower legs.

Superficial phlebitis differs from a deep vein thrombosis because the veins that are affected are near the surface of the skin. Symptoms of SP typically develop over hours to days and resolve in days to weeks. The area may continue to be firm for several weeks to months. Treatment usually includes warm or cool compresses, elevation of the leg, a non-steroidal antiinflammatory agent (NSAID) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or anticoagulation. In most people with SP, there is a low risk of developing a DVT or pulmonary embolism, so anticoagulation is not usually needed.


If the patient's history, symptoms, and physical exam suggest a DVT, tests are needed to confirm this. Tests to diagnose DVT may include compression ultrasonography, contrast venography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT scan), and/or a blood test called D-dimer.

If a person with a DVT also has signs or symptoms of a pulmonary embolus, additional testing will be needed. (See "Patient education: Pulmonary embolism (Beyond the Basics)".)

D-dimer — D-dimer is a substance in the blood that is often increased in people with DVT or pulmonary embolism (PE). D-dimer testing is sometimes useful for patients with a suspected DVT or PE. If the D-dimer test is negative and the patient has a low risk of DVT or PE based upon his/her history and physical examination, DVT or PE are unlikely and further diagnostic testing may not be needed.

Compression ultrasonography — Compression ultrasonography uses sound waves to generate pictures of the structures inside the leg. For this type of exam, a person lies on his/her back and then stomach as an ultrasound wand is applied to the leg. In most circumstances, compression ultrasonography is the test of choice for patients with suspected DVT.

Contrast venography — During contrast venography, a catheter is threaded into a vein and a dye is injected. This allows the clinician to see the vein with x-ray. Venography is generally reserved for situations in which ultrasound cannot be done, when other tests have not been helpful, or when other tests are negative but the clinician feels strongly that a venous thrombosis is present.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — MRI uses a strong magnet to produce detailed pictures of the inside of the body. MRI is as accurate as contrast venography. MRI is expensive, and its use may be limited to situations in which contrast venography cannot be performed, such as in patients with poor kidney function, during pregnancy, or because of allergy to the dye required in contrast venography.

Finding the cause of venous thrombosis — After determining that DVT or PE is present, the healthcare provider will want to know what caused it. In many cases, there are obvious risk factors such as recent surgery or immobility (see 'Acquired thrombophilia' above). In other cases, the clinician may test for the presence of an inherited form of thrombophilia or for another medical condition associated with an increased risk for venous thrombosis. (See 'Inherited thrombophilia' above.)

Persons with some acquired or inherited abnormalities may require additional treatment or prevention measures to reduce the risk of another thrombosis. Some experts recommend that the family members of a person with an inherited thrombophilia be screened for the inherited condition if this information would affect their care as well, although this issue is controversial. It is important that the healthcare provider discusses the pros and cons of screening for an inherited thrombophilia with the patient before this testing is done.


The treatment of DVT and pulmonary embolism (PE) are similar. In DVT, the main goal of treatment is to prevent a PE. Other goals of treatment include preventing the clot from becoming larger, preventing new blood clots from forming, and preventing long-term complications of PE or DVT.

The primary treatment for venous thrombosis is anticoagulation. Other available treatments, which may be used in specific situations, include thrombolytic therapy or placing a filter in a major blood vessel (the inferior vena cava).

Anticoagulation — Anticoagulants are medications that are commonly called "blood thinners." They do not actually dissolve the clot, but rather help to prevent new blood clots from forming. There are several different medications that might be given after a DVT diagnosis (referred to as "initial anticoagulation"), including:

Low molecular weight heparin, which is given as an injection under the skin – Options include enoxaparin (brand name: Lovenox), dalteparin (brand name: Fragmin), and tinzaparin (brand name: Innohep).

Fondaparinux (brand name: Arixtra), also given by injection

Unfractionated heparin, which is given into a vein (intravenously) – This may be the preferred choice in certain circumstances, such as if the patient has severe kidney failure or unstable blood pressure.

Direct oral anticoagulants – These are available in pill form; they include rivaroxaban (brand name: Xarelto) and apixaban (brand name: Eliquis).

Initial anticoagulation is continued for 5 to 10 days. After that, long-term anticoagulation is continued for 3 to 12 months (see 'Duration of treatment' below). In most cases, the direct oral anticoagulants are the preferred choice for long-term anticoagulation; these pills include rivaroxaban (brand name: Xarelto), apixaban (brand name: Eliquis), dabigatran (brand name: Pradaxa), and edoxaban (brand name: Savaysa). In some situations, another oral medication called warfarin (sample brand name: Coumadin) is given instead. For patients taking warfarin, the clotting factors in the blood need to be measured on a regular basis with a blood test called the International Normalized Ratio (INR), whereas this is not needed for patients on direct oral anticoagulants (see "Patient education: Warfarin (Coumadin) (Beyond the Basics)"). Less commonly, the patient does not take warfarin or any of the direct oral anticoagulants but takes a daily injection of low molecular weight heparin or fondaparinux for the entire treatment period.

The choice of anticoagulant depends upon multiple factors, including the preference of the patient and the healthcare provider, the patient's medical history and other conditions, and cost considerations.

Duration of treatment — Anticoagulation is recommended for a MINIMUM of three months in a patient with DVT.

In patients who had a reversible risk factor contributing to their DVT, such as trauma, surgery, or being confined to bed for a prolonged period, the person is often treated with anticoagulation for three months or until the risk factor is resolved.

Expert groups suggest that people who develop a venous thrombosis and who do not have a known risk factor for thrombosis may need treatment with an anticoagulant for an indefinite period of time [1]. However, this decision should be discussed with the person's healthcare provider after three months of treatment, and then reassessed on a regular basis. Some people prefer to continue the anticoagulant, which may carry an increased risk of bleeding, while others prefer to stop the anticoagulant at some point, which may carry an increased risk for repeat thrombosis.

Most experts recommend continuing anticoagulation indefinitely for people with two or more episodes of venous thrombosis or if a permanent risk factor for clotting is present (eg, antiphospholipid syndrome, cancer).

Walking during DVT treatment — Once an anticoagulant has been started and symptoms (eg, pain, swelling) are under control, the person is strongly encouraged to get up and walk around. Studies show that there is no increased risk of complications (eg, pulmonary embolus) in people who get up and walk, and walking may in fact help the person feel better faster.

Thrombolytic therapy — In some cases, a healthcare provider will recommend an intravenous medicine to dissolve blood clots. This is called thrombolytic therapy. This therapy is reserved for patients who have serious complications related to PE or DVT, and who have a low risk of serious bleeding as a side effect of the therapy. The response to thrombolytic therapy is best when there is a short time between the diagnosis of DVT/PE and the start of thrombolytic therapy.

Inferior vena cava filter — An inferior vena cava (IVC) filter is a device that blocks the circulation of clots in the bloodstream. It is placed in the inferior vena cava (the large vein leading from the lower body to the heart). The IVC filter typically is inserted through a small incision in a leg vein with the use of a local anesthetic and takes 20 to 30 minutes to perform. An IVC filter is often recommended in patients with venous thromboembolism who cannot use anticoagulants because of a very high bleeding risk. However, in the long term, IVC filters can increase the risk of developing blood clots.


Hospitalized patients — Certain high risk patients who are in the hospital, either for surgery (especially bone or joint surgery and cancer surgery) or because of a serious medical illness, may be given anticoagulants to decrease the risk of blood clots. Anticoagulants may also be given to women at high risk for venous thrombosis during and after pregnancy. (See 'Deep vein thrombosis risk factors' above.)

In hospitalized patients with a moderate to low risk of blood clots, other preventive measures may be used. For example, some surgical patients are fitted with inflatable compression devices that are worn around the legs during and immediately after surgery and periodically fill with air. These devices apply gentle pressure to improve circulation and help prevent clots.

Graduated compression stockings may also be recommended; these stockings apply pressure to the lower legs, with the greatest pressure at the ankle. The pressure gradually decreases up to the knee. For all patients, walking as soon as possible after surgery can decrease the risk of a blood clot.

Extended travel — Prolonged travel appears to confer a two- to fourfold increase in risk of venous thromboembolism (VTE) [2]. There are a few tips that may be of benefit during extended travel (table 1).


Second thrombosis — Patients being treated for venous thrombosis are at an increased risk for developing another blood clot, although this risk is significantly smaller when an anticoagulant is used. The patient should watch for new leg pain, swelling, and/or redness. If these symptoms occur, the patient should speak to his/her healthcare provider or seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Other symptoms may indicate that a clot in the leg has broken off and traveled to the lung, causing a pulmonary embolism. These may include:

New chest pain with difficulty breathing

A rapid heart rate and/or a feeling of passing out

This complication may be life-threatening and requires immediate attention. Emergency medical services are available in most areas of the United States by calling 911.

Bleeding — Anticoagulants such as heparin and warfarin can have serious side effects and should be taken exactly as directed. If a dose is forgotten, the patient should call his/her healthcare provider or clinic for advice. The dose should not be changed to make up for missed doses, unless the provider or clinic directs the patient to do so. Patients should immediately report to the pharmacist or physician if the pill or tablet looks different from the previous bottle. Other precautions are necessary when taking warfarin, and are outlined in a separate topic review. (See "Patient education: Warfarin (Coumadin) (Beyond the Basics)".)

Patients may bleed easily while taking anticoagulants. Bleeding may develop in many areas, such as the nose or gums, excessive menstrual bleeding, bleeding in the urine or feces, bleeding or excessive bruising in the skin, as well as vomiting material that is bright red or dark brown like coffee grounds. In some cases, bleeding can develop inside the body and not be noticed immediately. Bleeding inside the body can cause a person to feel faint, or have pain in the back or abdomen. A healthcare provider should be notified immediately if there is any sign of this problem. A healthcare provider should also be notified immediately if the patient on anticoagulants sustained an injury that could lead to bleeding inside the body.

Wear an alert tag — People who take anticoagulants should wear a bracelet, necklace, or similar alert tag at all times. If medical treatment is required and the person is too ill to explain his/her condition, the tag will alert responders about the patient's use of anticoagulants and risk of excessive bleeding.

The alert tag should list the person's medical conditions, as well as the name and phone number of an emergency contact. One device, Medic Alert, provides a toll-free number that emergency medical workers can call to find out a person's medical history, list of medications, family emergency contact numbers, and healthcare provider names and numbers.

Reduce the risk of bleeding — Some simple modifications can limit the risk of bleeding:

Use a soft bristle toothbrush

Shave with an electric razor rather than a blade

Take care when using scissors or knives

Avoid potentially harmful activities (eg, contact sports)

Use appropriate safety equipment (eg, helmets, padding) during physical activity

Do not take aspirin or other non-steroidal antiinflammatory agents (NSAIDS) (eg, ibuprofen, Advil, Aleve, Motrin, Nuprin) unless directed to do so by a healthcare provider. Other nonprescription pain medications, such as acetaminophen, may be a safe alternative.


Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our website (http://www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient education: Varicose veins and other vein disease in the legs (The Basics)
Patient education: Deep vein thrombosis (blood clots in the legs) (The Basics)
Patient education: Staying healthy when you travel (The Basics)
Patient education: Swelling (The Basics)
Patient education: Hip replacement (The Basics)
Patient education: Knee replacement (The Basics)
Patient education: Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs) (The Basics)
Patient education: Anti-clotting medicines: Warfarin (Coumadin) (The Basics)
Patient education: Doppler ultrasound (The Basics)
Patient education: Factor V Leiden (The Basics)
Patient education: Anti-clotting medicines: Direct oral anticoagulants (The Basics)
Patient education: Patent foramen ovale (The Basics)
Patient education: Superficial vein phlebitis and thrombosis (The Basics)
Patient education: Vein ablation (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient education: Pulmonary embolism (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: The nephrotic syndrome (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: The antiphospholipid syndrome (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Warfarin (Coumadin) (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Use of anticoagulants during pregnancy and postpartum
Deep vein thrombosis in pregnancy: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, and diagnosis
Deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism in pregnancy: Prevention
Deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism in pregnancy: Treatment
Clinical presentation and diagnosis of the nonpregnant adult with suspected deep vein thrombosis of the lower extremity
Cerebral venous thrombosis: Etiology, clinical features, and diagnosis
Evaluating adult patients with established venous thromboembolism for acquired and inherited risk factors
Thrombolytic (fibrinolytic) therapy in acute pulmonary embolism and lower extremity deep vein thrombosis
Risk and prevention of venous thromboembolism in adults with cancer
Placement of vena cava filters and their complications
Low molecular weight heparin for venous thromboembolic disease
Perioperative management of patients receiving anticoagulants
Overview of the causes of venous thrombosis
Prevention of venous thromboembolic disease in acutely ill hospitalized medical adults
Prevention of venous thromboembolic disease in surgical patients
Heparin and LMW heparin: Dosing and adverse effects
Warfarin and other VKAs: Dosing and adverse effects
Overview of the treatment of lower extremity deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
Antithrombin deficiency
Protein S deficiency
Protein C deficiency
Factor V Leiden and activated protein C resistance
Prothrombin G20210A mutation

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

National Library of Medicine


National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


American Heart Association



Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Wed Jul 19 00:00:00 GMT 2017.
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