Economy Class Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms and Prevention


Economy class syndrome is a popular term that has arisen for perhaps the most well known cause of DVT (deep vein thrombosis. DVT is a condition relating to blood circulation, when a clot forms within a vein. DVT can occur in several parts of the body but economy class syndrome refers primarily to the legs being affected, resulting from prolonged periods of inactivity when travelling. DVT of any area is not life-threatening in itself, however, there is a risk of pulmonary embolism if the clot travels to the lungs and this can be potentially fatal.


The term economy class syndrome comes from the idea of sitting in a somewhat cramped space with little room for movement for a long period of time, especially on aeroplanes. This lack of movement can be a trigger for DVT, particularly if other contributory causes such as obesity, injury, age or pregnancy are also present. Men exhibit a higher risk of DVT in general, but both sexes may experience economy class syndrome, with women using hormonal contraceptives a higher risk group.


When experiencing economy class syndrome, any of the following symptoms may occur: pain, swelling, heat and redness or visible enlargement of surface veins in the affected area. However, some patients experience no obvious symptoms. If an individual is displaying any of these symptoms or has other reason to suspect DVT then urgent medical treatment should be sought.


The use of compression stockings, sometimes referred to as flight socks, is recommended in the prevention of economy class syndrome. The stockings help to boost circulation and are also used in the treatment of DVT. Exercise and movement is also important when stationery for long periods of time. Walking around the aircraft when possible is recommended, as are exercises when seated, such as rotating the feet and ankles. This stimulates the calf muscles to also aid blood circulation, therefore reducing the risk of clots forming in the veins.