If you asked people what disease kills up to 200,000 people every year, most would guess cancer, heart disease, or infections. If I had not developed this problem myself, I would not have been able to give you the correct answer.
The answer is DVT (Deep Venous Thrombosis) or blood clots in the deep veins, especially those of the leg. According to scientists at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, DVT is one of the most preventable causes of death. It is estimated that 10 to 25% of deaths in the hospital are due to clots and 90% of these clots originate in the legs as DVT's.
Patients are at risk for clots if they have any major surgery especially on hips or knees and are over 40. Other risk factors include immobility, cardiac problems, obesity, or cancer.
Death results when one of these clots travels to the lungs and 2/3's of those deaths occur within 30 minutes after the clot has reached the lungs. This is known as a pulmonary embolism (PE). This is the third most common cause of death for all ages. Sadly, half of the PE's and 2/3's of the DVT's could have been prevented, according to the NIH.
Part of the problem occurs because up to 80% of these clots may have no or only vague symptoms. This makes detecting the clots very difficult but also points to the need for prevention.
Prevention is essential to combat this problem. Immobility or not moving is a big risk factor for clots. Long rides in cars or planes when people sit very quietly for long periods of time have been implicated as a cause of DVT's. Continental Airlines has recognized this potential problem and recommends exercises for passengers. You can find those exercises by (clicking here).
Patients who are going to undergo hip or other types of major surgery are given anticoagulants or blood thinners. These medicines do not dissolve existing clots but do prevent new clots from forming. The names of these medicines include coumadin, waferin or heparin.
The moral to this tale is that almost all surgery is 'major' and there are very real risks associated with it. You and your doctor have to weigh the decision to have any surgery which is not essential to save your life against all the risks. And, even with the most carefully considered and well done surgery, risks remain. Not all the outcomes are perfect.