If you’ve been wedged for hours in the seat of a plane (or a car or train), you’re at risk for developing a blood clot in your leg, a potentially serious—even fatal—condition dubbed traveler’s thrombosis or “economy class syndrome.”
“Blood needs to flow freely at a certain velocity to prevent clotting,” says Russell Rayman, M.D., executive director of the Aerospace Medical Association, an organization that tracks air-travel health issues. “As long as your blood flows unimpeded, there’s little likelihood of a clot forming,” he explains. “However, if you sit for long periods or compress veins by crossing your legs or sitting with the thighs flush against a seat edge, your risk increases.” That’s when the stage is set for a clot to form, a condition doctors call deep venous thrombosis (DVT).
A blood clot might go unnoticed, but occasionally one dislodges and moves to the lungs, where it’s potentially lethal. Fortunately, DVT from air travel occurs very rarely, Rayman says. Nevertheless, he urges travelers to be mindful. If you’re pregnant, a smoker, overweight or have coronary artery disease or circulatory problems, consult your doctor before embarking on a long international flight. And, thrombosis risk isn’t exclusive to the elderly; about one-fifth of people with the problem are younger than forty.
If you make an effort to keep your circulation flowing, you greatly reduce your risk of traveler’s thrombosis. A few airlines, including Lufthansa and Northwest, offer in-flight videos of preventive exercises. British Airways illustrates movements in their on-board magazine.
• Keep your blood pumping by walking around the cabin every hour to prevent thrombosis and reduce foot and ankle swelling.
• Wear loose-fitting clothing to maximize circulation.
• Avoid crossing your legs and elevate them whenever you can.
• Rayman recommends minimizing alcohol and caffeinated beverages and drinking lots of water and fruit juice, because hydration may improve circulation.
Try the following in-seat exercises—in any order you’d like—to move blood from the extremities toward your heart. Make room by stowing carry-on luggage in the storage bins rather than at your feet. Perform each of these simple movements fifteen to twenty times each hour or so.
1. Stretch your legs in front of you, keeping your feet off the ground. Flex and point your ankles and toes.
2. Slowly contract and relax the muscles in your calves, buttocks, and thighs, one muscle group at a time.
3. Keeping your feet flat on the floor and your knees at a 90-degree angle, lift up and down on your tiptoes or balls of the feet.
4. Circle your ankles and feet both clockwise and counterclockwise.
5. Stretch your back by arching it and then returning to a relaxed position.
6. Stretch your arms above your head and return them to your lap.
With an ounce of in-flight prevention and these circulation stimulators, you’ll reach your destination feeling less cramped and healthier for your efforts.
Laurel Kallenbach writes from her Boulder, Colorado, home about travel, herbal medicine and holistic health.