Deep vein thrombosis affects approximately 2 million Americans every year. The annual mortality rate in the U.S. from thromboses, or blood clots, is greater than yearly deaths from breast cancer, AIDS and motor vehicle accidents combined.

According to a study by the Mayo Clinic, more than 1,240 Mainers die as a result of DVT and blood clots in the lungs every year, and that’s likely a low estimate.

DVT refers to a blood clot in the deep vein system. Most clots that embolize, or travel, start in the deep veins. A clot can travel through the circulatory system to the lungs or brain and result in a stroke.

Anyone at any age can get DVT, but certain groups have higher risks:

• Those with sluggish circulation due to prolonged immobility, from hospitalization, bed rest or long-distance travel.

• People with blood-clotting issues, such as a genetic disorder or cancer.

• Patients undergoing surgical procedures.

• Patients with damage to their vein walls because of surgery or injury.

• Pregnant women and seniors.

This is, by no means, a complete list, and it’s important to remember that risk factors can be compounded. For example, combining recent hip surgery with a long airplane flight can raise the risk of DVT. However, having multiple risk factors doesn’t mean you will definitely get a blood clot.

DVT is a medical emergency that can occur with little or no warning. In most cases, the affected area — usually in the leg — will be painful, swollen or tender, with redness or discoloration of the skin. Even a muscle cramp that feels especially sharp and painful can be an indication of DVT.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends talking to your doctor about DVT, especially if you’re in a high-risk group. Also, move around as soon as possible after surgery, illness or injury and get up and walk every so often when traveling or sitting for more than four hours. Finally, the CDC recommends maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet and not smoking.

I also suggest pumping your feet, heel to toe, as frequently as possible, even while on bed rest. Treatment for DVT includes blood thinners and compression stockings. Though treatment varies from person to person, the goals are to prevent the blood clot from getting bigger and breaking loose and to reduce the chances of another clot.

March has been named DVT Awareness Month. Education is key for preventing this very common disease.

Dr. Cindy Asbjornsen is the founder of the Maine Phlebology Association and the Vein Healthcare Center in South Portland. Dr. Asbjornsen will give free DVT screenings from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 22 and 24, at the Vein Healthcare Center (by appointment only). Call 221-7799 to schedule a screening.