“Economy class syndrome” a myth, but deep vein thrombosis is not

By Shayna Brouker • Published: May 10th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

You’ve checked in and printed your boarding pass, checked your luggage, made it through the long security line, boarded the plane and are finally snug in your seat with your seat belt buckled. Time to settle in with a good book and enjoy the free beverage service, one of the few perks left in economy class seating … since leg room is surely not one of them.

Modest leg room is one of the hallmarks of flying coach. Some have said sitting in such cramped conditions can cause “economy class syndrome” and put frugal fliers at a higher risk for developing deep vein thrombosis on flights longer than six hours.

The condition occurs when legs have been sitting for too long and a clot forms. The clot can be fatal if it travels to the lungs and results in a pulmonary embolism. Six-hundred-thousand people are hospitalized with deep vein thrombosis each year and more than 100,0000 die of resulting pulmonary embolism in the United States alone.

Scientists say there’s no truth to the myth that prolonged sitting spells trouble for those in good health. But if you take oral contraceptives, are recovering from a recent surgery, are obese, pregnant or otherwise at risk of developing a blood clot, you have a higher likelihood of developing deep vein thrombosis — and should certainly sit in an aisle seat if you can for flights lasting more than six hours. Make sure to get up every so often and move around. Stretching calf muscles is also important. You might even consider wearing below-the-knee compression stockings.

About half of people don’t have symptoms, but if you experience redness, swelling, tenderness or pain in your leg, it could be deep vein thrombosis and you should get to a doctor.

At the very least, it gives you an excuse to sit in the aisle seat. Or you could always spring for first-class.