Superficial blood clots, or superficial thrombophlebitis, is a common condition that affects veins. Here, you’ll learn everything about it.
Superficial thrombophlebitis is a common condition all around the world. It is more commonly found within the young adulthood to middle age population. There is also a peak in its frequency in people over 60 years old. Still, it is less common for this latter group to develop complications.
In this article, you’ll read and learn that this disease is linked to high levels of estrogen. Therefore, it is related to pregnancy, early post-birth period, and high-dose estrogen therapy, although it doesn’t have a sex-linked risk to it. We will get to this further on.
Here, you will find everything you need to know about this condition. All the frequently asked questions like, what is a blood clot, the causes, and complications, answered. The best part is that the answers come directly from a doctor but in simple words. This way, by the end of this reading, you will have basic knowledge about this disease.
What is a superficial blood clot?
First, we need to explain what is a blood clot. It’s basically a clump of blood that has changed from liquid to a semisolid state. Normally, this process occurs to prevent you from bleeding too much in the event of an injury.
Most of the time, blood clots that form inside your veins or arteries will dissolve on their own. However, this doesn’t always happen and can cause you trouble. Generally, blood clots that don’t move won’t be dangerous. But, if this clot happens to move, it can travel from your veins to your lungs.
Sometimes, clots can get stuck and stop the blood flow inside your blood vessels. Blood clots can be present in your arteries and your veins, causing different symptoms. When they appear in arteries, clots can cause heart attacks and strokes. When in veins, they can affect both superficial and deep veins. A superficial blood clot is the one that appears in the more superficial veins.
Superficial clots can block the blood flow in your veins, causing superficial venous thrombophlebitis. Phlebitis is an inflammatory process that affects the walls of the veins. There are many causes for developing phlebitis, but the most common has to do with blood clots or thrombosis.
What causes a superficial blood clot?
There are many causes of blood clots. Basically, clots appear when your blood is thicker than usual, and your platelets get stickier. The platelets are the cells that get together to form clots when needed.
However, many conditions can alter the blood clotting process. Among the conditions that act as a risk factor for thrombophlebitis include:
- Previous history of superficial phlebitis or deep vein thrombosis
- Pregnancy: Changes in hormones during pregnancy result in higher probabilities of thrombophlebitis.
- Estrogen therapy: Especially high-dose estrogen therapy. This includes oral contraceptives that increase the risk of thrombophlebitis by 3-12 times. Also, hormone replacement therapy can affect your risk of developing this condition.
- Traumatic thrombophlebitis: Usually occurs in limbs after an injury. It manifests with tenderness along the vein and the area of trauma. Also, IV infusion of medications can result in traumatic thrombophlebitis.
- Thrombophlebitis in varicose veins: Already enlarged, tortuous veins are more likely to develop superficial phlebitis. It usually develops as a tender, hard knot surrounded by redness.
- Cigarette smoking.
- Age older than 60 years old.
- Other conditions that affect the blood vessels like vasculitis, lupus, and more.
What conditions can be mistaken for superficial thrombophlebitis?
Many conditions can produce symptoms similar to those of thrombophlebitis. The most important include:
- Deep venous thrombosis (DVT).
- Lymphangitis and lymphedema.
- Chronic venous insufficiency.
Can you feel a blood clot?
Not really. Thankfully, most of the time, clots form, and they get dissolved on their own. However, if you happen to develop a clot, you won’t feel it.
The only way to “feel” a blood clot is for it to prevent the blood flow in your vessels. Usually, venous clots can take a while to form. During this time, it is very unlikely for them to cause symptoms. Once the clot becomes big enough, it can cause phlebitis symptoms. For superficial thrombophlebitis, clots usually appear in the lower limbs. They can also appear in the arms, but it is uncommon unless there is a history of intravenous (IV) infusion.
Are superficial blood clots painful? – Superficial thrombophlebitis symptoms
Blood clots are not always painful. As said earlier, it can take some time for them to grow before they cause pain and other symptoms. This can manifest with a gradual onset of symptoms. In the event of superficial vein thrombosis, the most common symptoms include:
- Inflammation and redness of the skin where the vein is.
- Tenderness and pain in the limb or the area of the affected vein.
- The warmth of the skin and tissue surrounding the vein.
- Hardening of the vein.
- Progressive darkening of the skin around the vein.
- Bleeding, more commonly wherein varicose veins are present.
Remember that this happens commonly in the veins of your lower leg. Normally, thrombophlebitis symptoms will not interfere with doing your typical activities. However, you should still see a doctor if you develop any of these symptoms.
Should I worry about superficial blood clots?
Not really. Most of the time, thrombophlebitis in surface veins is not a dangerous condition. The prognosis is usually good, and it rarely causes deadly complications. However, like with any other disease, it can cause complications, especially if left untreated.
The clotting and the inflammation of veins can further affect deep veins, causing deep vein thrombophlebitis. In comparison to superficial blood clots, deep vein clots are more dangerous. This is because of the higher chance of developing potentially deadly complications, which we’ll mention later.
What if you get a blood clot in a deeper vein?
When deep vein clots appear, this is considered a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). It’s a different condition. However, what happens is very similar to superficial thrombophlebitis.
If blood clots appear and they stop the blood flow inside the veins. The problem comes when a deep vein clot is released because it can result in venous thromboembolism. When the latter happens, the clot can travel throughout your veins. This is dangerous because it can get to your lungs.
The symptoms are usually more intense with DVT, with more pain and damage in the inflamed vein. Due to this and the chance of complications, you should see your doctor immediately if you suspect DVT.
How long do superficial blood clots last?
Usually, mild cases of superficial thrombophlebitis will get better without any treatment. It will typically resolve within 2 to 6 weeks on its own. However, medical help is always important to prevent complications and get medical treatment for a quicker recovery.
Keep in mind that every patient is different, and the duration of the symptoms can vary. Many patients can experience recurrence of the blood clots, meaning that they can experience symptoms repeatedly. Here lies the importance of medical treatment to prevent recurring episodes of venous thrombosis.
What are the complications of superficial thrombophlebitis?
As we mentioned before, the prognosis of superficial thrombophlebitis is usually very good. There is a small chance it results in complications. Still, the most common complications include:
- Extension into the deep venous system: When the deep veins are affected, there is a higher chance of developing pulmonary embolism. This is the most dreaded blood clot condition since it can stop the blood flow towards your lungs.
- Persistent and firm nodules in the tissue surrounding the affected vein.
- An infected thrombosed vein that results in suppurative thrombophlebitis. This can cause a bloodstream infection that can be very dangerous if left untreated.
How is superficial thrombophlebitis diagnosed?
If you think you have symptoms of superficial thrombophlebitis, you should visit a doctor. To establish the diagnosis, the doctor will first ask questions about your medical history. They’ll probably ask about previous episodes of phlebitis and risk factors like smoking, family history, and hormonal treatment.
Then, the doctor will perform a physical examination to assess your symptoms. One important finding can be a painful area with a firm, thickened, or thrombosed vein during palpation. Since many conditions can cause similar symptoms to superficial thrombophlebitis, in most cases, physical examination won’t be enough to establish the diagnosis.
Accordingly, The doctor may indicate laboratory tests and imaging studies. Laboratory tests are not very helpful in diagnosing superficial thrombophlebitis, but they can rule out other conditions. The best way to diagnosing this disease is through an imaging study called Duplex ultrasonography.
Duplex ultrasound uses two types of waves to study the structure of blood vessels and their blood flow. This is why it is the best method to diagnose superficial thrombophlebitis and DVT. In fact, it is also used once the treatment has started to evaluate the progression of the disease.
How do you treat superficial blood clots?
There are many approaches to treating superficial blood clots. The treatment will depend on the symptoms, the extension of the condition, and the cause. For superficial thrombophlebitis, the treatment is usually mild. Just analgesics and elastic supports are enough.
It is not necessary to use anticoagulants unless also exists DVT or persistent inflammation in the vein area. Among the measures to treat superficial blood clots there is:
- Compression stockings: Long-leg elastic stockings are useful to increase the blood flow in the veins, reducing clot formation and swelling.
- Medical treatment: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can be useful to ease the pain and reduce the risk of extension. The other group of drugs for the treatment of superficial thrombophlebitis are anticoagulants. Drugs like fondaparinux and low-molecular-weight heparin act like blood thinners, reducing clot formation.
- Excision and ligation: In case of persistency, the thrombosed vein can be excised or removed. Your doctor will perform an incision over the vein to remove it. This is commonly done when the saphenous vein (the most important of your leg veins) is thrombosed.
Can superficial thrombophlebitis be prevented?
There are things you can do to lower the risk of developing thrombophlebitis. You must make an effort to include these measures in your daily life. Especially because thrombophlebitis tends to recur if the vein hasn’t been excised, some of these measures include:
- Avoiding long periods of standing upright.
- Avoiding long periods of inactivity.
- Slight elevation of the foot of the bed.
- Using compression socks during periods of standing upright.
If you pay attention, you may notice that the key of all of these measures is to increase blood flow. This is the most effective way to prevent the future formation of blood clots.
Do you have symptoms of this disease?
The tool is a Superficial Thrombophlebitis Symptoms Checker. It gathers the most important signs, symptoms, and risk factors for this ailment. Therefore, the tool will tell anybody who uses it the likelihood of their symptoms because of superficial thrombophlebitis. Using the tool is free and would only take a few minutes.