updated 08/04/2014 AT 2:00 AM ET
•originally published 08/04/2014 AT 8:35 AM ET
But how did something so routine turn fatal?
According to internist Dr. Levi Benson, “very few” blood clots turn out to be deadly. “The huge majority of people who get a blood clot do fine,” he says. “A medical professional can prescribe blood thinners, and the clots usually go away in a few months.”
Clots, which are also called deep vein thromboses (DVT) and usually occur in the extremities, can be caused by several things – like an injury or long air travel – that result in prolonged immobility. People with cancer and women who are pregnant are also at risk.
A clot can turn fatal when it detaches and travels to the lungs, becoming a pulmonary embolism (PE) that can overwhelm the heart.
“If the clot is big enough, it gets wedged into the lung vessels and increases the pressure in the heart,” explains Benson. “This causes the heart to fail. It’s like stopping up a pipe or causing an accident on the freeway. All of a sudden you have a big backup.”
Here are two simple ways to prevent a clot from turning fatal:
Seek help immediately
“It usually takes several days from the original injury for a clot to form,” says Benson. But once someone feels swelling or pain, “seek medical attention,” he says, adding that a diagnosis usually requires an ultrasound.
If the clot has already traveled to the lung but is small enough to not cause cardiac arrest, symptoms can range from shortness of breath to chest pain that worsens with deep breathing. In cases when a lethal blood clot forms rapidly, a clotting disorder could be a contributing factor.
Try to keep moving
DVT occurs more often in the lower extremities, usually after foot or leg injuries, because blood clots when it’s immobile. “The veins in your legs are more reliant on muscle movement to move the blood through the body,” says Benson. “So even if one part is injured, try to move the rest of the extremity. And do physical therapy.”