Sitting cramped in a plane for hours can be more than just uncomfortable. In extreme cases, it can lead to blood clots forming deep in the veins of your leg, a condition known as deep-vein thrombosis, or DVT. The association of DVT and long flights is often referred to as Economy Class Syndrome because of the tight seating quarters in economy class, but DVT can occur after long car or train trips, or with any long period of inactivity. However, you can help prevent DVT with a few simple exercises.
Walking and Massage
When you walk, the action of the muscles in your legs helps the flow of blood. To help prevent DVT on long flights, get up and walk periodically. According to Wright State University’s Aerospace Medicine Program, it can also be helpful to massage your feet, ankles, lower legs and knees to help move the blood out of your lower extremities.
Seated Leg Exercises
You may not always be able to get up from your seat and walk in the aisle of a plane, but you can do leg exercises while seated to increase the flow of blood in your legs. Repeat as often as you like during the flight to stimulate blood flow.
Heel raises: Start with your feet flat on the floor, lift the heels off the floor, then back down.
Hip flexion: Lift one leg off the floor, knee bent. Lower the leg, then lift the other.
Hip adduction: Place your purse, an airline pillow or even your hands between your knees, squeeze and hold for 5 seconds. Relax.
Hip abduction: If space permits, spread your knees as far apart as possible. Hold for 5 seconds. Relax.
Ankle Range-of-Motion Exercises
Ankle range-of-motion exercises designed for people rehabilitating from an ankle injury or surgery can also improve blood flow during long flights.
Ankle pumps: Move each foot up and down as if pressing and letting up on the gas pedal of a car. Repeat 10 times with each foot. If you can’t extend your leg to do the ankle pumps, do them with the heel resting on the floor.
Side to side: Move your foot side to side. Repeat 10 times with each foot.
Toe curls: Without moving your heel, curl the toes on both your feet as if you were using them to grasp a towel. Repeat 10 times.
Recognizing Symptoms of Deep-Vein Thrombosis
If you suspect you have a blood clot in your leg, seek medical help as soon as possible. According to the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, the primary symptom of DVT is aching in the calf that worsens over several days. Warmth and swelling may occur around or below the clot, and the skin may have a red or bluish tinge. The clot can break loose, travel to the lungs and block a pulmonary artery. This is known as a pulmonary embolism and is a potentially fatal medical emergency.
- Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine: Frequent Flyers Beware: Simple Steps Can Prevent “Economy Class Syndrome”
- Aurora Health Care: Lower Extremity Strengthening Exercises -- Sitting
- Ohio State Wexner Medical Center: Ankle Range of Motion Exercises
- Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide: Air Travel Health Tips
- Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images