From Chris Bosh to Sarah Franklin: Athletes and Blood Clots
Due to the physical demands of their profession, athletes can be at a slightly higher risk of developing blood clots. Despite being relatively young, strong, and in seemingly peak physical health, factors such as long periods of immobility during travel, dehydration, traumatic injuries, and the misinterpretation of blood clot symptoms can contribute to an increased risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT). What can we learn from elite athletes about blood clots that can be applied to our lives?
Chris Bosh was at the highest heights of his National Basketball Association (NBA) career when an afternoon visit to a doctor’s office brought it all crashing to the ground. It was in 2016 that the then-31-year-old NBA Hall of Famer, eleven-time All-Star, and two-time NBA champion who won titles with the Miami Heat alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Ray Allen, learned that a potentially life-threatening blood vessel condition required that he immediately stop playing the game he dominated.
What medical disorder ended this star basketball player’s winning career?
Chris was diagnosed with a blood clot, known as thrombosis, in his leg. Blood clots can be a serious life-threatening problem and even lead to death if a piece of that clot breaks loose and travels to the lungs. Despite Chris’ desire to continue to play, after two failed physical exams, the NBA ruled that Bosh's blood clotting issues were a career-ending illness. After his diagnosis, Chris never played professionally again, and the Heat retired Bosh's #1 jersey in 2019.
What is a blood clot?
The Mayo Clinic defines a blood clot as a gel-like clump of blood that forms within a blood vessel to help the body stop bleeding after an injury. While blood clots are common and not always serious, they can sometimes form in the wrong places or times. This can be dangerous because clots can block blood flow and cause serious health problems.
Types of blood clots
There are several types of blood clots (thrombosis). Each has its own characteristics and potential health implications depending on the location of the clot and can occur in arteries or veins in your heart, brain, lungs, abdomen, arms, and legs. Per Yale Medicine, thrombosis affects up to 900,000 individuals in the United States per year and kills up to 100,000. The main types of blood clots include:
- Venous Thromboembolism (VTE): This is an umbrella term that includes deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE). DVT occurs in veins, most commonly in the legs, and involves the formation of a blood clot. If a clot from DVT breaks free and travels to the lungs, it can cause a pulmonary embolism.
- Pulmonary Embolism (PE): This occurs when a blood clot travels to the lungs and causes a blockage of an artery from the deep veins of the legs (deep vein thrombosis or DVT), travels to the lungs, and stops blood flow in the pulmonary arteries.
- Coronary Thrombosis: This is a blockage of an artery in the heart, which can lead to a heart attack.
If you notice pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in your leg or have trouble breathing, it's crucial to seek immediate medical attention. These symptoms should not be overlooked, especially if you have risk factors. Early detection and swift treatment can significantly improve outcomes.
Center for Vein Restoration (CVR) provides same-day rule-out service for DVT or offers next-day diagnosis and treatment plan options. For assistance, please get in touch with our hotline at 877-SCAN-DVT.
Sarah Franklin: college volleyball superstar and blood clot survivor
Sarah Franklin, a 6-foot-4 volleyball standout, was named the Big Ten player of the year and the MVP of her region in the NCAA Tournament in 2023. Nicknamed “Frank the Tank,” she was in the best season of her career when a scan found three small blood clots in her right forearm stemming from a larger blood clot somewhere else in her body. The diagnosis helped explain why her hand turned white, cold, and clammy during practices and why every slam of the ball caused her pain.
An angiogram used to examine blood flow through arteries and veins determined the cause of Sarah’s blood clots was quadrilateral space syndrome (QSS). In this rare disorder, neural and vascular structures are entrapped. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), diagnosis of QSS can be complicated by the presence of concurrent traumatic injuries, particularly in athletes.
The timing of her diagnosis was notable because Sarah was preparing for a European tour requiring a long flight. Her doctors predicted that long hours at such a high altitude while having blood clots, “it’s very likely that she would’ve lost a limb.”
Sarah was placed on a blood thinner medication and was forbidden to participate in drills because an accidental volleyball to her head could result in a brain bleed. Unlike Chris Bosh, Sarah recovered from her blood clot and was able to return to the sport she loves.
Are the risk factors for blood clots different for athletes than for non-athletes?
While there are risk factors for blood clots that apply to the general population, athletes may have some specific considerations due to their physical activity and lifestyle. Athletes often engage in intense training and competition, and factors such as prolonged immobility during travel, dehydration, and certain sports injuries can contribute to an increased risk of blood clots.
Some risk factors for blood clots in both athletes and non-athletes include:
Immobilization: Long periods of sitting or immobility, common during travel or recovery from injuries, can increase the risk.
Dehydration: Athletes, especially those involved in endurance sports, may be prone to dehydration, which can contribute to blood clot formation.
Injury and Trauma: Sports injuries, particularly fractures and muscle damage, can elevate the risk of blood clots.
Genetic Factors: Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to clotting disorders, which can be relevant for both athletes and non-athletes.
Age and Gender: Both athletes and non-athletes may face increased clotting risks as they age, and gender can also be a factor. According to the National Blood Clot Alliance Stop the Clot® campaign, men have a higher overall risk of thrombosis than women, but women have risks due to pregnancy, birth control, and postmenopausal hormone therapy that men do not.
Missed or Ignored Symptoms: Because high-level athletes are revered for their strength and seeming invincibility, players, coaches, and even healthcare providers often overlook or misinterpret symptoms, downplaying signs of blood clots that would cause alarm in other individuals.
What are the symptoms of blood clots in athletes?
Even if someone appears in excellent health, it doesn't guarantee immunity from developing blood clots. DVT warning signs are sometimes disregarded in athletes as a muscle tear, charley horse, twisted ankle, or shin splints. At the same time, symptoms of PE are overlooked as a pulled muscle, bronchitis, asthma, or pneumonia.
It is crucial for athletes, coaches, and trainers to look out for the following signs of a blood clot:
Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
- Swelling, typically in the leg, but also possible in the arm for weightlifters, gymnasts, rowers, etc.
- Leg (or arm) pain or tenderness, often described as a cramp or charley horse.
- Reddish or bluish skin discoloration.
- Warmth in the leg (or arm) upon touch.
Pulmonary Embolism (PE)
- Sudden shortness of breath.
- Sharp and stabbing chest pain, which may intensify with deep breaths.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Fainting or loss of consciousness.
- Unexplained cough, sometimes accompanied by bloody mucus.
Treatment options for blood clots
Decisions regarding treating individuals with blood clots must be personalized, especially for young and seemingly healthy people like athletes. When faced with an unexplained DVT, it might be advisable to conduct tests to identify any inherited or acquired clotting disorders.
Generally, blood clots treatment consists of anticoagulation medications or blood thinners. Other treatment options include compression stockings, thrombolytic therapy (a particular medication infused into the clot through an intravenous catheter), mechanical thrombectomy (a minimally invasive procedure that removes blood clots and is commonly used in the case of stroke), and vena cava filters (a cone-shaped filter is surgically implanted in a large vein in the abdomen that reduces the risk of a blood clot in the arms or legs migrating to the lungs and causing a PE.
Key Takeaways: blood clots and athletes
It's essential for athletes, like anyone else, to be aware of the risk factors and take preventive measures. Staying hydrated, moving regularly during long periods of immobility, and promptly addressing injuries are essential. Athletes with concerns about blood clot risk should consult healthcare professionals who can provide personalized advice based on their medical history and activities.
Center for Vein Restoration provides personalized treatment for leg pain
To avoid a long and expensive visit to the emergency room, Center for Vein Restoration (CVR) provides a DVT rule-out service for athletes and others who suspect they have a DVT or PE. This comprehensive approach includes a scan, anticoagulation treatment, education, and follow-up if necessary.
You may have a blood clot if you have undiagnosed leg pain, swelling, or skin discoloration. Do not wait. Call CVR at 240-965-3915 to schedule your appointment, or schedule your appointment online.