Whether you travel by plane, train, automobile, or bus, any trip that lasts more than a few hours could leave your legs swollen and achy. And if you travel for a long period of time (5 hours or more), the problem can become more serious. So, why is travel so hard on legs?
When you travel, you’re essentially confined to your seat. Sitting in tight, cramped quarters for long periods of time does not allow you to stretch or exercise your leg muscles — the muscles that are responsible for assisting the venous blood flow back to your heart. As the hours of inactivity add up, your circulation slows down.
You may notice swelling, discomfort, or even pain in your legs, ankles, or feet. The longer you ride without exercising or stretching, the worse you may feel. But swollen and achy legs are just one part of the problem. Travelers need to be aware of, and take measures against, a more serious condition called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
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This condition involves the formation of blood clots (thrombi) in the deep veins of the leg. A DVT forms when blood pools in the legs, and coagulates due to prolonged inactivity. Blood clots are dangerous because they can break off after the trip or even several days later and move with the flow of blood through the heart into the lungs, where they can block major blood vessels and cause a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism.
The first signs of impaired blood circulation that may become apparent during the trip are swelling and shooting pain in the legs. However, these warning signs are not always present before the thrombosis occurs. It can develop unnoticed and, in rare cases, even apparently healthy people may suffer a DVT.
Aggravating factors, particularly during long-haul flights, are the low cabin pressure that increases the tendency of the blood to stagnate in the veins and low humidity that causes large amounts of body fluid to evaporate. As a result, the blood thickens even more and the formation of blood clots is more probable.