8 Silent Signs of Deep Vein Thrombosis
Don't miss these symptoms of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot that can occur in a vein in the leg or arm. Without treatment, a DVT can have potentially life-threatening consequences.
What to know about DVT symptoms
You’ve probably experienced some form of leg pain whether it was due to running, sitting, or standing for too long. However, there are times when leg pain could be a sign of something more serious—it can sometimes be a symptom of deep vein thrombosis or DVT.
DVT is the result of a blood clot in a vein, usually in the legs or pelvis. (Although they can also occur in an arm.) Every year, about 300,000 people in the U.S. experience a first-time DVT.
Sometimes DVT symptoms may not be apparent and go undetected. However, if you suspect you have a blood clot, it’s important to seek medical attention. A DVT can lead to a potentially life-threatening condition called pulmonary embolism—a blood clot in a lung artery—if the clot travels away from the original site.
To help you determine whether you have DVT, we’ve identified some of the more common symptoms, according to medical experts.
Your leg swells
If you’ve noticed one leg is looking larger than the other, it could be a DVT symptom.
“Leg swelling is caused when a blood clot in the vein prevents blood from returning from the leg back to the heart,” explains Geoffrey Barnes, MD, cardiologist and vascular medicine specialist at the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center. “The swelling could also cause pain or discomfort.”
A pulled muscle or cramp
Among other DVT symptoms, people may experience the sensation of a “pulled muscle” or a leg cramp that will not go away, Dr. Barnes says. “If either of these are associated with leg swelling, it should be evaluated for a possible DVT.”
The discomfort of DVT could also feel like a throbbing ache or tenderness. (If a doctor determines that your pain is not a DVT, consider these home remedies for muscle soreness and pain.)
Your leg is an unusual color
A red or even bluish-purple tinge to your skin in one area could be reason to worry, if it’s also combined with other symptoms. “It’s the collecting of blood that leads to discoloration, as well as the swelling and discomfort,” explains Dr. Barnes. (Read this real-life story about DVT in pregnancy.)
Your skin feels warm to the touch
If your leg starts to feel warm and it’s combined with other symptoms, it could be a sigh of DVT. The warmth is also a result of the accumulation of blood in the area, Dr. Barnes says. (Find out your blood clot risk.)
Your DVT symptoms are subtle … or they’re severe
The intensity with which these clues crop up may vary from person to person. “Every patient is a little different,” Dr. Barnes notes. “Some patients have very subtle, slowly developing symptoms. But most patients have symptoms that are quite bothersome and arise over a few short days.” (Here’s what you need to know about birth control and DVT risk.)
Your DVT symptoms return or worsen
In general, when symptoms like pain and swelling are caused by an accident such as a twisted ankle they clear up as the injury heals. But in cases where discomfort and swelling don’t improve—or improve but come back later—DVT could be to blame. “If that pain and swelling does not get better over a few days or if it progresses beyond the point of injury—for example, higher up the leg than the ankle—people should consider they might have a DVT and get checked out by their doctor,” says Dr. Barnes. (Here are secrets your blood type may reveal.)
Or, you don’t have any DVT symptoms at all
It’s common that people with DVT may not experience a single outward sign, which could make the condition challenging to catch. “The tragedy of these diseases is that their diagnosis is easy to overlook because the signs and symptoms are often diffuse and difficult to recognize,” says Elizabeth G. Nabel, MD, cardiologist, president of Brigham Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “In many cases, there are no clinically apparent signs at all. Perhaps as many as 50 percent of the cases of DVT are silent.’’ (Try these stretching exercises for stress relief.)
You also have DVT risk factors
Some of the risk factors for DVT include prolonged sitting in one position (like during a flight), pregnancy, a fracture or other injury, an extended time in bed (for example, after surgery), taking birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, obesity, and smoking.
Anyone can have a DVT at any age, but the risk increases as you get older. People with cancer, certain inherited conditions, or heart failure are at higher risk too.
If you suspect you’re experiencing DVT symptoms, your doctor wants to hear from you. “Many patients with a DVT will develop long-term swelling and aching, known as the post-thrombotic syndrome,” says Dr. Barnes. “Early and effective treatment can help to prevent the post-thrombotic syndrome from developing.”
In addition, if left untreated a DVT could embolize—meaning the clot could break free and travel through the body—to the lungs, resulting in a pulmonary embolism. A doctor can help prevent this life-threatening development by prescribing blood thinners (anticoagulants).
Additional treatment options could include a filter inserted in the largest vein of the body, or clot-busting medications injected directly to the site. “Contact your health care professional promptly to see if you have a DVT and discuss the various treatment options,” says Dr. Barnes.
- Geoffrey Barnes, MD, MSc, cardiologist and vascular medicine specialist at the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center and a member of the Society for Vascular Medicine
- Elizabeth G. Nabel, MD, cardiologist, president of Brigham Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital, and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School
- Society for Vascular Medicine: "Deep Vein Thrombosis"
- National Blood Clot Alliance How Common is DVT?