Travel often involves extended flights. Long periods of time seated in a cramped atmosphere can lead to reduced movement. In addition to general discomfort, this immobility can lead to dangerous health events.
Excessive sitting has the potential to cause blood clots in the legs. This condition is referred to as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), sometimes also called traveler’s thrombosis. When blood pools in the legs, these clots can form which may have varying degrees of size and effects on health. Small clots often go unnoticed. Moderately sized clots can cause swelling, stiffness and pain.
Unfortunately, large clots can have life threatening consequences. The clot can break off and transfer to the lungs causing a pulmonary embolism, also termed a venous thromboembolism (VTE). The effects of a pulmonary embolism may not result until hours after it has occurred. The signs include chest pain and shortness of breath. In some cases it may cause sudden death.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently launched a project evaluating DVT and its relationship to air travel. The project, WHO Research Into Global Hazards of Travel (WRIGHT), is evaluating if higher risks of DVT and VTE are related to air travel versus other modes of transportation such as sitting in a car.
Preliminary research from the WRIGHT project indicates that the risk of VTE doubles for flights that last four hours or more. The risk increases as the flight time increases and can also be present in instances where travelers take several flights within a short time frame.
Move to Reduce RiskRegular movement is advised during long flights to improve blood circulation. This can be done through standing and walking around the cabin every 60 to 90 minutes. Exercises performed in a seated position can also be beneficial in reducing the risks of DVT. Focus on the calf muscle may be related to increasing the blood flow in the legs and the prevention of clotting.
Many airlines provide suggestions and even explanations of exercises on their web-sites. Northwest Airlines provides a list of 10 possible movements complete with graphics for instruction.
A few examples of exercises that can improve blood flow include: