In November 2003, shortly after giving birth to a daughter, Le Keisha Ruffin began feeling pain in her pelvic region. She had no idea what was causing the suffering so she sought the advice of an ob/gyn.

“I was assured that the pain was caused by the cesarean section I had a few weeks prior,” Ruffin says. “But the pain intensified, and I constantly returned to the hospital. I kept hoping I’d finally get some answers.”

Desperate to discover the reason for her pain, Ruffin decided to check her family’s medical history for clues. “I found out a little bit later that my grandmother experienced something similar when she was around my age and had given birth to her child,” she says.

Finally, after she’d logged numerous visits to the emergency room, doctors at Detroit’s Sinai-Grace Hospital diagnosed Ruffin with deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in January 2004.

DVT occurs when a blood clot forms in one of the body’s large veins (usually in the lower limbs), leading to partial or complete blockages in the leg, thigh or pelvis. If this clot breaks loose from the vein’s wall, it may travel to the lung and cause a blockage there—called a pulmonary embolism (PE). Symptoms of PE include shortness of breath, sharp chest pains or coughing blood.

As Ruffin speculated, DVT can have a genetic link. Other risk factors include age, late-stage pregnancy, smoking and inactivity. Of these, smoking is a major contributor, especially for women older than 35 who take birth control pills.

More conditions that can lead to DVT onset include a variety of cancers that generally increase blood clot risk, and long periods of restricted movement (caused by surgery or trips by car or airplane).

Each year, DVT affects about 1 million people in the United States. Of that number, nearly 600,000 are hospitalized, and 300,000 die of DVT-related PE. More than 50 percent of people with DVT show no symptoms. But of those who do, they experience swelling, tenderness, pain and skin redness in the affected area of the body.

While DVT can affect anyone, African Americans have a significantly higher risk of developing the condition compared with other ethnic groups in the United States, says Garth Graham, MD, MPH, deputy assistant secretary for minority health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Why is that?

“That’s the kind of major question we don’t have all the answers to,” Graham says. “But what we do know is that obesity, and other related illnesses, can increase your risk of deep vein thrombosis. African Americans have a higher incidence of these illnesses, which may account for their higher risk of DVT and PE .”

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

Although you can’t change your family history, you can change your lifestyle to reduce the chance of developing DVT. The best modifications, Graham suggests, are to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

Since she began treatment after her DVT diagnosis, Ruffin has done just that. She follows a vegetarian diet and consistently works out. She’s also educated herself about what causes DVT and which foods help heal the body.

Graham also recommends taking charge of your health. For example, if you know an upcoming surgery will immobilize you, then speak to your medical provider beforehand about DVT prevention medication.

And if you’re a frequent flier or car traveler, this doctor orders that you get moving!

“Walk the aisle of the plane every hour and a half, or you can get up and walk [in place] for a little while,” Graham says. “When you walk, you squeeze your calf muscles–that moves the blood in the legs, so it doesn’t become static.”

If you are diagnosed with DVT, your primary care physician can manage the condition. Treatment requires taking blood thinner medications, such as Coumadin (the generic name is warfarin), for about six months. People with reoccurring DVT, however, may take the mediation for an extended period of time.

Typically, DVT is not a lifelong or chronic condition, the doctor stresses. Instead, it’s episodic, treatable and preventable.

What’s most important, Graham says, is that people stay active. Also, know your risk factors for the condition, then take steps to reduce them in order to stay healthy and DVT-free.

Visit the Vascular Disease Foundation at to learn more about your DVT and PE risks.