Q Could staying glued to my seat on a long plane flight kill me?
A Possibly. The risk is small but real enough to merit its own nickname, "economy-class syndrome." The underlying blood clot disorder, deep vein thrombosis, affects some 2 million people in the United States each year. Sitting anywhere—in a car, on a train, at work—for four to eight hours without budging can increase the risk of clots. And recent studies suggest that the low air pressure in a plane may nudge up the risk.
The problem starts when a blood clot forms within one of the body’s large deep veins, usually in a leg. The area around the blocked vein may swell, get red, or cramp up. Or the clot may go unnoticed, eventually dissolving on its own. But if a piece breaks off and travels to a lung, then it can be lethal.
People with certain clotting disorders, those who have had recent surgery or a major injury, smokers, and cancer or cardiovascular patients are more likely to develop clots. Being dehydrated, obese, pregnant, or on birth control pills raises the likelihood, too. All those factors add up.
So don’t just sit there. Stretch or walk every couple of hours. If you must stay in your seat, flex those toes and ankles frequently. Drink lots of water. Avoid tight clothing, alcohol, and sleeping pills. And if you have extra risks, check preflight with your doctor, who can fit you for compression stockings and in some cases prescribe medication.
This article was first published in May 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information