After you’ve spent the evening mesmerized by an entire season’s
worth of your favorite television show in one sitting, you might feel
a cramp in your leg or a twinge in your neck when it’s time to get
up and turn off the tube. But binge-watching may heighten the risk of
something much more serious than a charley horse. A new study has found
that people who spend hour after hour in front of the TV screen are more
likely to incur a sudden and potentially life-threatening blockage of
an artery in the lung, known as a pulmonary embolism (PE).
Researchers looked at the television viewing habits of more than 86,000
people over 18 years, and the preliminary results show that, after adjusting
for other factors, people in the habit of prolonged television watching
were associated with a significantly higher chance of PE. Those who watched
TV for 5 or more hours per day had twice the risk of a fatal PE than those
who watched less than 2 ½ hours per day.
Ricardo Gomez, MD, a board-certified pulmonologist at
St. Mary High Desert Medical Group in Victorville, explains that PE happens because extended periods of unrelieved
sitting can dislodge blood clots in the legs, sending them upstream. “A
complex network of veins and arteries circulate blood throughout the body,”
says Dr. Gomez. “A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot that
has formed in one part of the body, most often the leg, breaks free from
the vein in which it sits and travels through the blood vessels into the
lung, where it gets stuck and cuts off the flow of blood.”
PE can damage the lungs as well as other parts of the body that depend
on steady blood flow. “The lack of circulation damages lung tissue
and causes high blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries,” Dr. Gomez
says, “and as the levels of oxygen in the blood drop lower than
they should, other organs that need that oxygen stop functioning correctly.
The symptoms include severe shortness of breath, chest pain, and coughing.
Death can result if the clot that is causing the blockage is large or
if many clots break free at once.”
The link between PE and lengthy sitting was first made when people had
to endure in British air raid shelters during the London Blitz. Today,
people who sit in cramped seats on long-haul airplane flights are thought
to be more susceptible to PE, giving rise to the nickname “economy
Certain long-distance travelers have an elevated risk of so-called economy
class syndrome--for example, those with risk factors for PE who sit next
to the window and are unable or reluctant to leave their seat--but PE-related
blood clots can affect anyone who leaves their legs immobile for hours
at a time. “With respect to risk factors,” Dr. Gomez notes,
“you need to be more concerned about PE if you have a history of
deep vein thrombosis, which is the formation of blood clots in the vessels
deep within your legs. You are also more likely to develop clots if you
are of an advanced age, if you have recently had surgery, if you have
recently received cancer treatment, if you are pregnant, or if you are
undergoing hormone replacement therapy.”
The guidelines for preventing pulmonary embolism are the same whether you
are traveling, working at your desk, or watching TV, says Dr. Gomez. His
advice: “Stand up and take frequent stretch breaks. Walk around
the passenger cabin, the office, or the living room, and exercise your
calf muscles. Set a timer to remind yourself to get up and move your legs.”
If you have one or more risk factors for PE, see your doctor for diagnosis
and treatment before an embolism occurs. Your doctor may prescribe blood-thinning
medication and additional therapies like compression stockings that increase
circulation and help your legs feel better.
How do you like to break up long periods of sitting? Share a comment below.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical
care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.