Background: The true frequency of deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) during long-haul air travel is unknown. We sought to determine the frequency of DVT in the lower limb during long-haul economy-class air travel and the efficacy of graduated elastic compression stockings in its prevention.
Methods: We recruited 89 male and 142 female passengers over 50 years of age with no history of thromboembolic problems. Passengers were randomly allocated to one of two groups: one group wore class-I below-knee graduated elastic compression stockings, the other group did not. All the passengers made journeys lasting more than 8 h per flight (median total duration 24 h), returning to the UK within 6 weeks. Duplex ultrasonography was used to assess the deep veins before and after travel. Blood samples were analysed for two specific common gene mutations, factor V Leiden (FVL) and prothrombin G20210A (PGM), which predispose to venous thromboembolism. Asensitive D-dimer assay was used to screen for the development of recent thrombosis.
Findings: 12/116 passengers (10%; 95% CI 4.8-16.0%) developed symptomless DVT in the calf (five men, seven women). None of these passengers wore elastic compression stockings, and two were heterozygous for FVL. Four further patients who wore elastic compression stockings, had varicose veins and developed superficial thrombophlebitis. One of these passengers was heterozygous for both FVL and PGM. None of the passengers who wore class-I compression stockings developed DVT (95% CI 0-3.2%).
Interpretation: We conclude that symptomless DVT might occur in up to 10% of long-haul airline travellers. Wearing of elastic compression stockings during long-haul air travel is associated with a reduction in symptomless DVT.