Should I Apply Compression Devices To Patients With DVT?

Everyone knows that venous thromboembolism (VTE) is a potential problem in hospitalized patients, and especially so in trauma patients. Several groups of them are at higher risk by virtue of the particular injuries they have sustained and the activity restriction caused.

Nearly every trauma program uses some form of screening and prophylaxis in an attempt to reduce the occurrence of this problem, which can result in deep venous thrombosis (DVT) and/or pulmonary embolism (PE). Screening looks at patient factors such as age, obesity, previous VTE as well as injury risk factors like spine and pelvic fractures, and decreased mobility.

Based on the screening protocol, prophylaxis may be prescribed depending upon level of VTE risk, which is then balanced with bleeding risk from brain, solid organ, or other injuries. The choices we have are primarily mechanical vs chemical and consist of compression devices (sequential or not) and various heparins.

An age old question surfaced on my own patient rounds recently. If a patient breaks through their prophylaxis and develops DVT, is it safe to apply compression devices to the extremity?

There has always been the fear that doing things that increase flow in the affected extremity may cause clots to dislodge and ultimately cause a PE. Seems logical right? But we know that often, our common sense about things is completely wrong.  Couldn’t just moving around cause pieces to break off? A meta-analysis of 13 studies published in 2015 showed that early ambulation was not associated with a higher incidence of new PE. Furthermore, patients who suffered from pain in the affected extremity noted significant improvements with early ambulation.

If ambulation makes the pain better, could the veins be recanalizing more quickly? Another study examined a small group of 72 people with DVT receiving anticoagulants, half of whom were prescribed exercise and compression stockings and the other half stockings only. There was a huge amount of variability in the rates of recanalization, but ultimately there were no significant differences with or without exercise.

So just lying in bed is not good, and exercise/ambulation may actually make people feel better. But interestingly, bedrest alone does not appear to increase the likelihood of PE! It does decrease the risk of developing problems other than the VTE, like pulmonary complications.

But what about compression devices? Common sense would say that you are intermittently  increasing pressures in the leg veins, which could dislodge any loose clots and send them flying to the lungs, right?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a paper from anyone who had the courage to try this. Or perhaps no institutional review board (IRB) would approve it. But the key fact is that every compression device manufacturer includes existing DVT as a contraindication in their product documentation. They don’t have any literature either, so I assume it’s an attempt to limit litigation, just in case.

Bottom line: Walking provides at least as much muscle compression as compression devices. But the simple truth is that we have no solid research that either supports or condemns the use of active compression devices in patients with known DVT. And we probably won’t, ever.

Compression stockings seem to be safe, but they really don’t do much. They are white, but don’t do much more than contribute to hospital clothing fashion. Since the manufacturers define existing DVT as a contraindication, application of their product would be considered an off-label use. So it looks like we cannot in good faith use these devices in patients with diagnosed DVT.


  • Bed Rest versus Early Ambulation with Standard Anticoagulation in The Management of Deep Vein Thrombosis: A Meta-Analysis. PLOS One , April 10, 2015,
  • Bed Rest or Ambulation in the Initial Treatment of Patients With Acute Deep Vein Thrombosis or Pulmonary Embolism: Findings From the RIETE Registry. Chest 127(5):1631-1636, 2005.
  • Does supervised exercise after deep venous thrombosis improve recanalization of occluded vein segments? A randomized study. J Thrombosis Thrombolysis 23:25-30, 2006.
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