Athletes: At Risk for Deep Vein Thrombosis


Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a potentially dangerous blood clot that forms deep in the veins of the legs, arms or pelvis. DVTs are very common and respond well to treatment when caught early. Without treatment, part of the clot can break off and travel to the lung, where it may block blood flow (called pulmonary embolism) and can cause death.

Athletes and blood clots

“Despite being predominately young and healthy, athletes may be at increased risk for DVTs,” says John Moriarty, MD, FSIR, director of PE Response Team and of the IVC Filter Clinic, UCLA Interventional Radiology.

Some reasons athletes are at risk for blood clots include:

  • Spending a lot of time seated and immobile while traveling long distances in a car or plane to and from sporting events
  • Experiencing dehydration due to strenuous activity
  • Having a higher likelihood of experiencing a trauma such as a broken bone

As with the general public, some athletes are more vulnerable to DVTs because they have:

  • An inherited clotting disorder
  • A family history of DVTs
  • Abnormal anatomy of veins or other body structures (for example, narrowing of the veins of the pelvis or shoulder)

Symptoms of DVTs

DVTs can form in the legs, arms or pelvis. Athletes of every sport and every age may experience a blood clot. Being in tune with their bodies can help athletes spot DVTs when they are most treatable. Symptoms include:

  • Swelling
  • Tenderness or pain described as a cramp or Charley horse
  • Skin discoloration
  • Skin that is warm to the touch

When DVTs lead to a pulmonary embolism, the symptoms become more severe:

  • Shortness of breath or passing out
  • Rapid heartbeat or sharp pain in the chest
  • Unexplained cough

“Athletes should make an appointment with their primary care provider if the symptoms are not severe,” says Dr. Moriarty. “If there is a lot of pain or swelling, or there are symptoms of a pulmonary embolism, they should head to the emergency department for immediate care.”

Treating blood clots in athletes

Providers diagnose blood clots using a painless ultrasound test. If the provider identifies a DVT, they recommend ABCD measures:

  • Activity: Stay active, because it is good for total health
  • Blood thinners: Use blood thinners (usually tablets, but sometimes injections) to prevent existing blood clots from traveling to other parts of the body and new ones from forming
  • Compression: Place a tight-fitting stocking on the swollen leg or arm to press the swelling away and prevent pain and future blood clots
  • Device: In some cases, a specialist may use medical devices to deliver a higher level of treatment for DVTs

Specialists may use medical devices to:

  • Suck out a blood clot
  • Deliver a clot-busting drug
  • Place a stent to keep the vein open
  • Place a filter to prevent a blood clot from traveling to other parts of the body

The vast majority of people who develop a DVT will need three to six months of ABCD measures.

“If someone has a genetic abnormality or they repeatedly experience blood clots, they may need more aggressive treatments,” says Dr. Moriarty. “In those cases, blood thinners and compression measures may be lifelong.”

Dr. Moriarty says there have been new developments and improvements in DVT treatments, so results are better than ever. Most athletes can return to rigorous activity following treatment for blood clots.

Learn more about DVTs. When you need expert care, schedule an appointment or visit the UCLA IVC Filter Clinic.