Many air passengers suffer minor symptoms, such as fluid collecting in the lower limbs causing swollen legs and ankles, but others experience more serious symptoms including a rapid heartbeat, palpitations, and breathlessness or coughing.

Are you on your feet for hours a day in your job? Do your legs and feet feel tired even when you are travelling? Have you noticed your whole body tends to feel tired, achy and you slow down? It's as though your total well being is dependent on the fitness of your limbs and if your legs ache and ankles swell you may well have a tendency to varicose veins. About half the UK population suffers from some kind of leg problems such as tired, aching legs and about a quarter seek treatment for such conditions as varicose veins or in extreme cases a venous leg ulcer.

Good circulation is important in preventing leg problems. The blood that flows into the lower leg is helped back to the heart by the pumping action of the calf muscle when we exercise, and by the "one way" valves in the veins themselves. However if the veins become damaged or the valves stop working properly blood can gather in the lower limb, causing swollen ankles and tired, aching legs.

Today more and more people are on the move for their work or vacation, however the huge increase in world travel, particularly long distance air travel, carries with it the potential health risk of a deep vein thrombosis (commonly known as DVT). DVT was not previously recognised as a serious travel risk, but has now been proven to affect thousands of air travellers each year. It can often occur in conjunction with an established illness or condition, where the natural tendency of the blood to clot is increased. A thrombosis is a blood clot, which forms when the platelets of the blood stick together, also sticking to the sidewall of veins, most commonly the veins of the calf. Other factors increase this tendency including being over 40 years of age, smoking, obesity, pregnancy, taking the contraceptive pill, or having recently undergone major surgery.

Long periods of immobility, particularly on long haul flights can cause circulatory problems, with enforced inactivity and sitting in cramped conditions for long periods of time creating blood flow problems. An inefficient, sluggish blood flow increases the risk of a thrombosis and is particularly serious when the blood clot gradually increases in size causing an eventual blockage in the vein. Occasionally bits of the clot will break free, and with a trail of debris behind it can travel up the body to the right side of the heart, where it is pumped on into the lungs, causing serious breathing problems or a pulmonary embolism.

Many air passengers suffer minor symptoms, such as fluid collecting in the lower limbs causing swollen legs and ankles, but others experience more serious symptoms including a rapid heartbeat, palpitations, and breathlessness or coughing. If a problem does occur, during or after a flight it is essential to seek medical advice as quickly as possible, in order to avoid complications or possible death from cardiac or respiratory failure.

To prevent a DVT, commonly known as "economy class syndrome" (because of the tight cramped seating arrangements in many planes) it is essential to walk up and down the aisles of the aircraft whenever possible during a long flight. Other easy ways to help avoid DVT are to wear loose comfortable clothing and to avoid crossing your legs especially when sleeping and to do simple leg and feet exercises throughout the duration of the flight. Long haul flights carry the most risk, but exercise and walking around whenever possible will improve circulation, the calf muscles at the back of the lower leg will pump and encourage the return of blood from the legs and feet back to the heart.

This simple exercise which I call "Rock and Roll" can help to increase your circulation ( you can either sit or stand holding onto the chair back for support).

  • With both feet flat on the floor simply pull up your toes and forefoot whilst keeping your heels on the floor.
  • Now lower your toes down to the floor and with a continuous rolling action lift your heels up.
  • Repeat pulling up and lowering down toes and forefoot in a rock and roll action, 20 times fast and vigorously! Feel the calf muscles in the back of your lower legs working!

This movement helps pump the blood back up the leg towards the heart. On a long plane journey the air inside the cabin can become very dry, so it's advisable to drink plenty of fluids during the flight in order to prevent the body becoming dehydrated. And avoid excess alcohol because dehydration can cause the blood to thicken. Taking an aspirin before a long flight is a simple precaution which can help thin the blood and discourage blood from clotting. However aspirin is not advisable for anyone who has an established medical condition such as a stomach ulcer. If you are concerned about the risks involved with flying long distances, it is a good idea to talk to your GP, particularly if you have had phlebitis or a previous thrombosis.

I hope these simple tips which are suitable for most people will help keep your legs fit for life!

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