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Can an airplane ride cause me a stroke?

By February 16, 2009

The large majority strokes are caused because a blood clot stops blood flow to a part of the brain. These stroke-causing blood clots can form inside the brain, or somewhere else, such as the legs, arms or hip. And when you sit down for several hours at a time during an airplane ride, the blood that pools inside the legs can indeed form a stroke-causing blood clot (this is also known as a deep venous thrombosis or DVT).

But how can a leg DVT affect the brain? In truth, a leg DVT is actually more likely to end up in the lungs and cause what is known as a pulmonary embolism. But it can also end up in the brain because DVTs follow the path of regular venous blood. In other words, they end up in right side of the heart, from where they are channeled into the lungs. After all venous blood has already used up all its oxygen and the lungs are the place where they normally go for a re-fill.

But in some people, a DVT can bypass its trip through the lungs by crossing from the right to the left side of the heart through a small hole called a patent foramen ovale or PFO.

Typically, by itself this little hole is not a problem, and those who have it are almost never aware of it. But if you have one of these silent connections between the left and right sides of your heart, and you form a DVT, say during your airplane ride to China or Brazil, the PFO can serve as the passage way that allows this DVT to cross over to the left side of the heart, and actually cause you a stroke.

So next time you are on a long plane ride donít forget to get up and walk around the cabin a few times. This will mobilize the blood in your legs, preventing it from forming a potentially dangerous DVT.

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