Travelling far distances by car, bus, plane, or train is not always fun. Did you know it can even have a harmful impact on your health, too? Long-distance travel, especially by car, taxi, or bus can increase the risk of blood clot formation, a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
In many instances, people sit still in cramped and confined conditions for hours when they’re traveling a far way. But warns Dr. Helen Okoye, a medical expert and spokesperson for the World Thrombosis Day (WTD) campaign, prolonged periods of inactivity can be dangerous.
“When our bodies are in a static position for a lengthy period, our blood circulation slows down, leading to poor circulation and blood pooling in the lower extremities of your body. This can lead to a DVT, where a blood clot forms in your calves,” says Dr Okoye. If this clot breaks loose, it can travel to the lungs, causing a potentially life-threatening condition called a pulmonary embolism (PE).
If the vehicle you’re travelling in is packed with passengers, there may be no room to stretch your legs out. The driver may also be on a tight schedule, meaning limited bathroom stops and opportunities to stretch your legs during the trip.
Dr. Okoye cautions that constricted seating that leads to passengers sitting in one position for a long time, reduces blood flow and increases the risk of clot formation. “When your legs remain still for hours, your calf muscles don’t contract, which normally helps the blood circulate,” she says.
Who is at risk?
Although prolonged immobility is bad for everyone, specific factors could raise the risk even more. Individuals with a history of blood clotting disorders, who are elderly or obese, who have recently had surgery, or who have a leg cast with limited mobility, are at a higher risk. Pregnancy, or three months after giving birth, places women at a higher chance of getting a thrombosis, too.
“Going back home after giving birth or having had surgery, so that loved ones can take care of you is understandable, but be aware of the thrombosis risk that comes with long distance travelling,” says Dr. Okoye.
If you have a history of blood clotting disorders, she advises that you consult with your healthcare provider before travelling. In some cases, you might be prescribed blood-thinning medication to reduce the risk. You could also consider wearing graduated compression stockings to help improve blood circulation.
Before your trip
Prior to your trip, engage in regular physical activity to improve overall circulation and strengthen your muscles. Maintain a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and avoid excessive salt intake, as it can contribute to fluid retention. Smoking can also increase the risk of blood clot formation, so it’s best to avoid it before and during your travel.
During the trip
Having to cope with tight legroom and restricted movement is tricky, but there are preventive measures to take.
“Hot, dry weather and inadequate fluid intake during travel can lead to dehydration, which can thicken the blood and contribute to clot formation. Drink plenty of water during your trip to avoid dehydration and maintain proper blood viscosity. Limit alcohol and caffeine intake, as they can contribute to dehydration,” says Dr. Okoye.
“Wear loose-fitting clothing and stay as active as possible. Move your legs frequently, flexing your ankles and knees, and take short walks whenever possible. In a bus, consider standing up and stretching in the aisle. Adjust your seating position regularly to improve circulation, and use pillows or cushions to provide support and comfort,” she advises.
Remove your shoes and if possible, elevate your legs periodically to reduce swelling and improve blood flow. Avoid crossing your legs – this can impede blood flow, so keep your legs uncrossed while seated. When you do stop for a break, stretch your body, and walk around for a bit before you sit down again.
According to the WTD campaign, one in four people in the world are dying from conditions caused by thrombosis, but knowing blood clot signs and symptoms can help you spot or prevent blood clots. The most common symptoms of DVT in long distance travel are usually swelling or pain in the leg or arm, skin that is warm and tender to touch, or redness of the skin.
Remember that these preventive measures are general recommendations and may not be suitable for everyone, says Dr Okoye. ”If you have specific health concerns or conditions, consult with a healthcare professional before embarking on a trip to find out if you are at risk of getting blood clots and if it is safe for you to travel a long distance.”