At first I just thought it was a cramp.
I'm 24 years old, an avid runner and cyclist, follow a healthy diet, have never smoked, and have no family history of major health problems. In other words, I'm as healthy as they come. So it came as a shock a few months ago when a sudden health issue came close to killing me.
It started as a bad cramp. I woke up at 3 in the morning to what felt like a charley horse in my left calf, something that I'd experienced plenty of times before. I didn’t think much of it, though, because after about a minute of stretching, it felt better. I went back to sleep.
Over the next two days, those painful jolts in my calf kept coming back. I assumed I must have strained my calf during a workout, so I continued with my daily routine despite the pain. Thinking maybe I just needed to give my legs a break, I eased up my runs and took a couple of Pilates classes instead. I felt fine, so I assumed my leg was on the mend.
Everything changed on day four. The pain worsened, and the cramps came four to six times a day, lasting for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. That's when I started getting nervous.
With a quick Google search on calf cramps, I discovered information about deep vein thrombosis, or DVT. I learned that DVT occurs when a blood clot forms in one of the deep veins in the body, usually in the legs, and that symptoms include swelling, warmth, redness, and pain. Aside from the pain, though, I didn't have any other of the listed symptoms. Plus, I didn't think I had any risk factors for the condition.
Later that same night, though, I was in so much pain that I couldn’t sleep. I counted down the hours until I could go to Urgent Care. I still didn’t think that it was a blood clot, but I knew that whatever it was, I needed to take care of it immediately.
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When I went to Urgent Care the following morning, the doctor felt around my leg and compared it to my other one.
“Your leg seems fine,” he said. “No swelling, redness, or warmth.”
“But it hurts so much,” I pleaded, hoping that he could give me some comfort in a diagnosis, at the very least.
“Are you on a birth control pill?” the doctor asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Get an ultrasound for good measure, but it’s most likely nothing.”
From Urgent Care I went to the radiologist’s office, where two different technicians examined the blood flow in my leg. They were not allowed to give me any information, but I heard them repeat the word “gastrocnemius” several times. I quickly Googled what that was, and the first hits that came up were about the gastrocnemius muscle, which is located in the calf.
I was instantly relieved, thinking they were referring to simple muscle pain. I even felt slightly embarrassed that I'd gone through the whole production of seeing the radiologist.
That is, until the radiologist entered the room and informed me that I needed to go to the emergency room immediately. “You have a blood clot in your gastrocnemius,” he said. “You need to be treated immediately in case the clot travels from your leg up to your heart or lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.”
I rushed to the ER. There, the doctors asked if I’d gone on any long trips recently. I had—the day before my pain started, I took a five-hour bus ride. It turns out that DVT risk increases when you sit for extended periods and don't move your legs. The docs blamed my DVT on a combination of that bus ride and my birth control pills, which also increase blood clot risk.
The doctors also explained that while pulmonary embolism as a result of DVT is rare, my risk was higher than most. I was supposed to fly to Paris just four days later, and another period of prolonged sitting could have prompted the clot to move from my calf to my heart or lungs—potentially killing me.
Seeking medical help when I did prevented the clot from having a severe impact on my life. I had to take anticoagulants (blood thinners) for three months, could not travel for one month, and had to go off my birth control. That’s it. Canceling a trip to Paris was worth saving my life.
If there’s one thing I learned from this experience—whether you notice a sudden, persistent leg cramp, or anything in your body that intuitively feels off—don’t hesitate to see a doctor. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.