The pain and cramping you feel in your calf may not be a result of recent exercise. On the contrary, it could be a symptom of deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot that forms in one or more of the deep veins in the body, usually in the legs, Mayo Clinic explained.
Deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, can cause leg pain or swelling. There are more than 200,000 cases of DVT in the United States each year. In addition to pain or cramping in the calf, other signs or symptoms of DVT can include swelling in the affected leg, red or discolored skin on the leg, or a feeling of warmth in the affected leg.
While a blood clot is not necessarily associated with risk factors, there are factors that can increase the risk:
- Age. While DVT can occur at any age, being older than 60 increases your risk.
- Sitting for long periods of time. This can include when you are driving or flying. When your legs remain still for hours, your calf muscles don’t contract. Muscle contractions normally help blood circulate.
- Prolonged bed rest. Blood clots can form in the calves of your legs if your calf muscles don’t move for long periods.
- Injury or surgery. Injury to veins or surgery can increase the risk of blood clots.
- Pregnancy. Pregnancy increases the pressure in the veins in the pelvis and legs.
- Birth control pills. Oral contraceptives, along with hormone replacement therapy, can increase the blood’s ability to clot.
- Being overweight or obese. Obesity increases the pressure in the veins in your pelvis and legs.
- Smoking. Smoking affects blood clotting and circulation, which can increase the risk of DVT.
- Cancer. Some forms of cancer increase substances in the blood that cause it to clot. Also, some forms of cancer treatment increase the risk of blood clots.
- Heart failure. This increases your risk of DVT and pulmonary embolism. Because people with heart failure have limited heart and lung function, the symptoms caused by even a small pulmonary embolism are more noticeable.
- Inflammatory bowel disease. Bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, increase the risk of DVT.
- Personal or family history of DVT or Pulmonary Embolism. If you or someone in your family has had one or both of these, you might be at greater risk for developing DVT.
- Genetics. Some people inherit genetic risk factors or disorders, such as factor V Leiden, which makes blood clot more easily.
If you develop signs or symptoms of DVT, contact your primary healthcare provider. The provider will assess the symptoms and determine if screening –typically an ultrasound – is necessary.
According to the National Blood Clot Alliance, an ultrasound can find about 95 percent of DVT cases in the large vein above the knee; about 60 to 70 percent are identified in the calf veins through ultrasound. Additionally, computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are other screenings used to help determine DVT.
DVT is important to screen for because it can permanently damage veins. As many as half of people with DVT experience long-term leg pain, heaviness, and swelling that can progress to difficulty walking, changes in skin color, and open leg sores, the Vascular Disease Foundation said.
Also, the blood clot can break off and go into the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism, said Barry Amos, DO, an interventional radiologist with Trinity Health.
According to Mayo Clinic, if you develop signs or symptoms of a pulmonary embolism, seek emergency medical help. Signs or symptoms include:
- Sudden shortness of breath
- Chest pain or discomfort that worsens when you take a deep breath or when you cough
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy, or fainting
- Rapid pulse
- Rapid breathing
- Coughing up blood
Management of DVT depends on the location, the chronicity, and symptoms, Dr. Amos explained. If the DVT is located above the knee, anticoagulation – using blood thinners to prevent and reduce the coagulation of blood, prolonging the clotting time – is the standard of treatment, with additional treatments implemented if needed, Dr. Amos said. If it gets worse, or it is a high-risk DVT, he adds, intervention to remove the clot will be done. For acute clots, with anticoagulation alone, it may take two to four weeks – or even months – for the body to dissolve the clot. tPa, a clot-busting medication, can dissolve the clot in two to twelve hours, but there is increased risk of bleeding with tPa, Dr. Amos said.
“That’s why thrombectomy is being used more frequently now amongst many other reasons,” he added.
A thrombectomy is a procedure that, with the aid of a catheter, removes blood clots from arteries and veins through suction. “A catheter is placed in the vessel next to the clot and hooked to a pump, which sucks the clot out of the vessel,” he said.
While there are many instances in which tPa is used, it is becoming less frequent than in the past.
While DVT is not 100 percent preventable, there are helpful measures to take. According to Mayo Clinic:
- Avoid sitting still. If you have had surgery or have been on bed rest for other reasons, try to get moving as soon as possible. If you’re sitting for a while, don’t cross your legs, which can block blood flow. If you’re traveling a long distance by car, stop every hour or so and walk around. If you’re on a plane, stand or walk occasionally. If you can’t do that, exercise your lower legs. Try raising and lowering your heels while keeping your toes on the floor, then raising your toes with your heels on the floor.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking increases your risk of getting DVT.
- Exercise and manage your weight. Obesity is a risk factor for DVT. Regular exercise lowers your risk of blood clots, which is especially important for people who sit a lot or travel frequently.