How common are blood clots? A Providence heart specialist weighs in

Key takeaways:

  • Blood clots are a natural part of the healing process from simple to complex injuries. Complications can occur when they don’t break down as they should.

  • Arterial blood clots form in the arteries and cause symptoms immediately.

  • Venous blood clots form in a vein and develop symptoms slowly over time.

[4 MIN READ]

Blood clots made headlines earlier this spring when six women developed a rare type of clot after receiving the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine. Phrases like cerebral venous sinus thrombosis and pulmonary embolism have become commonplace on the nightly news. However, it’s important to note that even though blood clots may be coming up more commonly in everyday conversations, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your risk is higher. Read on to learn if blood clots are something you need to be concerned about based on your overall health and lifestyle. And more importantly, find out what the symptoms are and how to talk to your doctor to assess your risk if you are worried about developing one.    

Even though blood clots may be coming up more commonly in everyday conversations, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your risk is higher. Find out if blood clots are something you need to be concerned about based on your overall health and lifestyle.

What is a blood clot?

A blood clot is a gel-like mass of blood. In many cases, blood clots are a natural part of the healing process when you are cut or injured. Blood clots typically form at the site of an injury, such as a scraped elbow or cut finger, to plug an injured blood vessel and stop any bleeding. As healing takes place, the clot breaks down and dissolves harmlessly.

Sometimes a clot forms inside an artery or vein for no apparent reason and doesn’t dissolve as it should. Depending on its size and location, the results can cause severe health consequences or even death if not treated right away.

Types of blood clots

There are two different types of blood clots:

  • Arterial clots form in the arteries, which are blood vessels that carry blood from the heart into the body. They cause symptoms immediately and may lead to heart attack or stroke.
  • Venous clots form in a vein, which are blood vessels that carry blood from the body to the heart. They develop slowly over time and may not have readily identifiable symptoms.

“The blood clots that we most commonly talk about are blockages in blood vessels that don’t allow blood to flow as it normally would,” says Alejandro Perez, MD, a heart specialist with Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic.

When we're talking about venous-related blood clots, we're usually talking about deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism.

When a blood clot forms, it may remain in one place and block blood flow. This is called thrombosis. Clots that break loose and travel to other parts of your body are called embolisms. "When we're talking about venous-related blood clots, we're usually talking about deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism," says Dr. Perez.

Potential complications

The risks posed by blood clots vary depending on their size, type and location, according to Dr. Perez.

  • Deep vein thrombosis occurs in a vein located deep within your body, typically in your thigh, lower leg or pelvis.
  • Pulmonary embolism happens when a deep vein thrombosis breaks up and migrates to your lungs, stopping oxygen flow.
  • Cerebral venous sinus thrombosis is a rare blood clot in your brain that can cause a hemorrhagic stroke.

Other potential complications include kidney failure, heart attack, pregnancy-related issues and ischemic stroke.

If a blood clot is big enough, it can break off and go into a pulmonary artery.

“The thing we worry most about is that all these veins eventually go back to the heart. If a blood clot is big enough, it can break off and go into a pulmonary artery. If there’s a big enough blood clot, sometimes that can lead to death,” says Dr. Perez.

Symptoms of a blood clot

Blood clots also cause different symptoms based on where they are located:

  • In your abdomen, they can cause nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
  • In your arm or leg, they can cause swelling, pain and warmth.
  • In your lungs, they can cause shortness of breath, pain, rapid breathing and increased heart rate.
  • In your brain, they can cause difficulty speaking, weakness on one side of your body, vision problems and severe headache.
  • In your heart, they can cause sweating, pain in your left arm and shortness of breath.

"There's no one symptom, so it requires further evaluation to assess whether a clot exists and, if so, if it's a potential threat," says Dr. Perez.

Who is at risk for blood clots?

Several factors can increase your risk of developing blood clots, according to Dr. Perez, including:

  • Prolonged immobility
  • Recent trauma or injury
  • Recent surgery
  • Hormone therapy such as estrogen replacement or birth control
  • Being age 65 or older
  • Cancer

When the blood doesn't move, it congeals. And that's what a blood clot is.

"These are all things that increase the risk for the vein blood not moving. And when the blood doesn't move, it congeals. And that's what a blood clot is," he says.

When to call the doctor

Although most blood clots are not a cause for concern, they may pose a serious health threat in some cases. Your physician can help determine if care is needed. If your symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath or severe headache, seek medical care immediately to ensure you are not at risk.

Call your doctor when a symptom is new. It's always worth calling. It’s always worth having a discussion.

"Call your doctor when a symptom is new," says Dr. Perez. "If you haven't had the symptom before, call your doctor or provider to say, 'These are the symptoms I'm having. Do you suggest I come into the office to be checked out? Do you suggest I have a test?' It's always worth calling,” he says. “It’s always worth having a discussion.”

Have you experienced a health threat due to #bloodclots? Share your experience with and how it affected your health with readers @providence.

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Find a doctor

The heart specialists at Providence can help you recognize the signs of potentially dangerous blood clots and prevent them from damaging your health. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can access a full range of healthcare services. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory or search for one in your area.

Related resources

Get relevant, up-to-date information on the coronavirus (COVID-19) from Providence.

If you need care, don't delay. Learn more about your options.

Johnson & Johnson vaccine update

CDC and FDA lift pause on Johnson & Johnson vaccine

HealthBreak | Clot Retrieval for Stroke

Providence St. Mary first in High Desert to use special device to safely extract blood clots

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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