WHO Study Finds Long Travel Poses Risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis

THE risk of developing venous thromboembolism (VTE) doubles after travel lasting four hours or more, according the results from phase I of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Research Into Global Hazards of Travel (WRIGHT) project. However, the study points out that even with this increased risk, the absolute risk of developing VTE, if seated and immobile for more than four hours, remains relatively low -- at about 1 in 6,000, WHO officials said on June 29.

The two most common manifestations of VTE are deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a condition in which a blood clot, or thrombus, develops in a deep vein -- usually in the lower leg. Symptoms of DVT are principally pain, tenderness and swelling of the affected part. DVT can be detected through medical testing and can be treated. It can be life-threatening when associated with thromboembolism.

Thromboembolism occurs when a blood clot (from a deep vein thrombosis) in a leg vein breaks off and travels through the body to the lungs where it becomes lodged and blocks blood flow. This is known as pulmonary embolism, and symptoms include chest pain and breathing difficulties. VTE can be treated, but if it is not, it can lead to death.

The study showed that plane, train, bus or automobile passengers are at higher risk of VTE when they remain seated and immobile on journeys of more than four hours. This is due to a stagnation of blood in the veins caused by prolonged immobility, which can promote blood clot formation in veins.

One study within the project examining flights in particular found that those taking multiple flights over a short period of time are also at higher risk. This is because the risk of VTE does not go away completely after a flight is over, and the risk remains elevated for about four weeks.

"The study does confirm that there is an increased risk of venous thromboembolism during travel where the passenger is seated and immobile for more than four hours, whether in a plane, train, bus or car. However, it is important to remember that the risk of developing VTE when traveling remains relatively low," said Dr Catherine Le Galès-Camus, WHO assistant director-general for Noncommunicable Disease and Mental Health.

This study did not investigate effective preventive measures against DVT and VTE. However, experts recognize that blood circulation can be promoted by exercising the calf muscles with up-and-down movements of the feet at the ankle joints. Moving feet in this manner encourages blood flow in the calf muscle veins, thus reducing blood stagnation. People also should avoid wearing tight clothing during travel, as such garments may promote blood stagnation.

Phase I of the research project concludes that there is a need for travelers to be given appropriate information regarding the risk of VTE by transport authorities, airlines and medical professionals. Further studies will be needed to identify effective preventive measures. This will comprise Phase II of the project, which requires additional funding before it can begin.

Individuals with questions regarding prevention of VTE should consult their physicians before traveling.

For more information, contact WHO at http://www.who.int/en.

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