Wellbeing focus: DVT at your desk?

If you thought it was just airline passengers who were at risk of blood clots, think again. Longer hours and sedentary working conditions mean ‘e-thrombosis’ is on the rise. Sally O’Reilly reports

We may be a nation of couch potatoes, but our bodies aren’t designed to cope with sitting down all day. Recent research published by the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand has found that long stints at the PC or sitting at a desk can double our risk of getting a lethal blood clot, or deep vein thrombosis (DVT). So much so, that researchers have coined a new term for the condition: ‘e-thrombosis’.

Blood clot

A deep vein thrombosis is a blood clot that develops in a deep vein, usually in the lower leg. The association between prolonged sitting and DVT was first recognised in London during the Second World War, when people slept in deck chairs in underground shelters. Sitting immobile for as little as an hour and a half can reduce the blood flow in the popliteal vein (behind the knee) by 40%. Risks to air passengers on long flights are well known, but anyone who works at a desk for more than eight hours a day is at risk unless they take frequent breaks. And every extra hour sitting down increases the risk by another 20%.

Professor Richard Beasley, who headed the New Zealand study, comments: “The risk of developing blood clots with prolonged seated immobility is largely unrecognised. This study has shown that it is as least as important a factor as long distance air travel.”

The study looked at the cases of 62 people with DVT and discovered that 34% had spent long periods sitting at their desk at work. Researchers found that people reported working for 14 hours a day, and some were going for three to four hours at a time without getting up. Employees most at risk were those working for call centres and the IT sector.

E-thrombosis

The research might have taken place in New Zealand, but it’s an equally worrying problem here in the UK. Medical staff at the Lister Hospital, London, say they are seeing City brokers and lawyers with suspected e-thrombosis who are putting in 12 or 14 hour days, sitting in front of a computer.

According to Dr Beverley Hunt, medical director for thrombosis charity Lifeblood, immobility is a key factor in causing thrombosis. Every year, as many as one in 1,000 people in the UK is affected by a blood clot, and 60,000 people a year die from this condition.

“It’s sitting still which puts people at the highest risk,” she warns. “People who fidget do not get DVT. To protect yourself, it’s advisable to get up, stretch your legs and walk around once an hour. Walking around only five or 10 minutes each hour will substantially reduce your risk of developing e-thrombosis. You don’t need to take a long break, but you do need to get the blood flowing again.

“Most of us naturally take such breaks when our concentration flags, and get up and make a coffee or talk to people. But it is important to do this even if you are under pressure to finish a piece of work. And while you are sitting down, give you feet and ankles a wiggle around.”

Preventative measures

Drinking plenty of water is also advisable, as dehydration is a risk for DVT. Eight glasses of water a day is the recommended amount. Doctors also recommend taking cardiovascular exercise (such as aerobics, swimming or jogging) at least three times a week, as this not only lowers blood pressure, but cuts down the risk of clots. And vitamin supplements can also help – one remedy called Zinopin Daily has been tested on long haul flight passengers and contains a blueberry complex, pine bark and ginger.

As far as HR is concerned, there is no legal obligation to promote a less sedentary working style, but with the publication of Dame Carol Black’s Working for a Healthier Tomorrow review, the role of HR in actively promoting health for working age people will be under increasing scrutiny. Promoting health-conscious working doesn’t cost employers anything, and could boost the morale and productivity of all staff, as well as averting a health catastrophe for the unlucky few.

In addition to getting staff to take breaks, consider small changes such as moving equipment such as fax machines and photocopiers further away from desks to make walking around part of a day’s work, installing phones with wireless headsets to allow staff to move around while they are talking, and promoting an overall healthy living strategy to encourage staff to be fit and active.

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