What is hypercoagulation?
When you get a cut, your body forms a thickened mass of blood tissue called a blood clot. This mass stops the bleeding. Proteins in your blood help form the clot. This process is called coagulation.
Sometimes your blood clots too much. This is called hypercoagulation. A blood clot can then travel through your body in your blood. This can be very dangerous. Blood clots can form in vital organs or travel to them, including the heart and brain. This can cause serious health problems, even death.
Symptoms of hypercoagulation
The symptoms you may experience depend on where the blood clot forms and where it travels. It can travel to many places, including the heart, lungs, brain, legs, and kidneys.
A blood clot in the heart or lungs can cause a heart attack or a pulmonary embolism (a name for blood clot in the lungs). Symptoms include:
- Chest pain.
- Shortness of breath.
- Discomfort in the upper body, including chest, back, neck, or arms.
A blood clot in the brain can cause a stroke. Symptoms include:
- Speech changes.
- Paralysis on one or both sides of the body.
A blood clot in the lower body may cause deep vein thrombosis (a blood clot deep inside your leg) or peripheral artery disease (when your arteries become narrow). Symptoms may appear in your leg and include:
A blood clot in the vein to one of your kidneys may cause kidney failure. Symptoms include:
- Urinating less than usual.
- Blood in the urine.
- Lower back pain.
- A blood clot in the lung.
What causes hypercoagulation?
Some people may not have enough of the proteins that regulate blood clotting. This causes their blood to clot too often. Others may have the proteins but have issues with them not working right. Still others are born with a tendency to develop clots. This means they run in the family.
Certain situations or risk factors can make it more likely for your blood to clot too much. These situations include:
- Sitting on an airplane or in a car for a long time.
- Prolonged bed rest (several days or weeks at a time), such as after surgery or during a long hospital stay.
- Surgery (which can slow blood flow).
- Cancer (some types of cancerincrease the proteins that clot your blood).
- Pregnancy (which increases the pressure in your pelvis and legs and can make blood clots form).
- Using birth control pills or receiving hormone replacement therapy (which can slow blood flow).
In addition to these situations, you may be at risk of hypercoagulation if:
- You have relatives with abnormal or excessive clotting.
- You had an abnormal clot at a young age.
- You got clots when you were pregnant, were using birth control pills, or were being treated with hormone replacement therapy.
- You have had multiple unexplained miscarriages.
How is hypercoagulation diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects you have hypercoagulation, he or she will do a physical exam. Your doctor will ask if anyone in your family has or had problems with clotting. He or she also can order blood tests to check the protein and platelet levels in your blood. The tests also can show if your proteins are working the way they should.
Can hypercoagulation be prevented or avoided?
There is nothing you can do to prevent hypercoagulation if it’s inherited (runs in your family). However, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk if it isn’t inherited.
- Quit smoking.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Avoid medicines that contain the female hormone estrogen (such as birth control pills).
- Stay active during long trips. If traveling by car, take frequent breaks to get out and walk. If traveling by plane, walk up and down the aisles every hour. These activities will keep the blood flowing.
- Treat conditions that could lead to excessive clotting, such as diabetes.
Hypercoagulation is usually treated with medicine. Most of the time, this medicine is called an anticoagulant. This is sometimes called a blood thinner. Some drug names you may hear are heparin, warfarin, dabigatran, apixaban, rivoraxaban, and aspirin. This medicine makes it hard for blood clots to form. It also can keep existing clots from growing bigger.
Some people only need to take this medicine when they’re in situations that make them more likely to form clots. This can include during long car or airplane trips, when they’re pregnant, or when they’re recovering from surgery in the hospital. Other people need to take this medicine on a regular basis for the rest of their lives. Your doctor will decide what treatment is right for you.
If your doctor prescribes an anticoagulant, you should:
- Follow his or her instructions carefully. This includes how, when and how much of the medicine to take. It also includes getting follow-up blood tests so your doctor can see how the medicine is working.
- Discuss your diet with your doctor if you take warfarin. Foods with a lot of vitamin K can reduce its effectiveness. These foods include leafy green vegetables, fish, lentils, soybeans, and some vegetable oils.
- Don’t take aspirin with other blood thinners unless your doctor tells you it’s okay. Aspirin also can thin your blood.
- Talk with your doctor before taking any other medicines or supplements. This includes prescription medicine, over-the-counter medicine, vitamins, or herbal supplements. Some of these medicines may strengthen or weaken your anticoagulant.
- If you have other doctors, tell them you’re taking an anticoagulant.
- Tell your doctor right away if you’re pregnant or become pregnant. Some anticoagulants can cause birth defects.
- Tell your family you take anticoagulant medicine.
- Carry an emergency medical ID card with you at all times.
Anticoagulants can have side effects. Some can cause you to bleed easily. For example, if you cut yourself, it might take your blood longer than usual to clot. You might also bruise more easily. Call your doctor right away if you have bleeding that’s unusual or heavy.
Living with hypercoagulation
Hypercoagulation can be extremely dangerous. A blood clot inside a blood vessel can travel through your bloodstream. It can get stuck inside one of your body’s organs. A clot that gets stuck in your lungs (pulmonary embolism) blocks blood from getting to your lungs. A clot that blocks a blood vessel in the brain can cause a stroke. A clot in a blood vessel in the heart can cause a heart attack. Blood clots can cause some women to have miscarriages. All of these conditions can be life-threatening. That’s why it’s so important for hypercoagulation to be treated right away.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Is hypercoagulation dangerous? Am I at risk of a stroke?
- My father had problems with hypercoagulation. Am I at risk, too?
- What are the symptoms of hypercoagulation?
- Can hypercoagulation be treated and cured?
- What can I do to prevent blood clots?
- What are the side effects of the medicine used to treat hypercoagulation?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.