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I was reading an article on deep vein thrombosis in air travel. It seems that the problem is more prevalent than one would think. A great deal of effort goes into preventing planes from crashing but people are many times more likely to die from pulmonary embolism than a plane crash.

I'm wondering what steps have been taken to mitigate the health risks for pilots who spend many more hours sitting in a cramped seat at 8,000 ft of cabin altitude than most passengers. The most common advice for travelers is to do exercises to keep blood flowing and get up and move around occasionally. Is this practical for pilots? It doesn't seem like there is enough leg room to do exercises, not to mention that there are rudder pedals that could cause problems if you push them at the wrong time. If one of the pilots gets up the other pilot is often required to wear his oxygen mask until the first pilot returns. This would tend to make the pilots keep their cockpit excursions to an absolute minimum.

Do most pilots wear pressure stockings? That is another way to help prevent DVT. Is this a priority among the airlines and pilots themselves?

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    $\begingroup$ I retired in 1999, so what I say is only of possible historical interest. In my day (damn, that sounds like I'm really old, damn, I am really old) we didn't worry about DVT, and it was never a problem with me or any pilot I knew of. I typically left the seat to strech or use the toilet every hour or so, and I always tried to walk the cabin at least once on long flights (747 so most were long). We had no requirement to wear oxygen masks, but these were three man crews and we did observe the rule that only one cockpit crew member could be out of the cockpit at a time. $\endgroup$ – Terry Dec 11 '15 at 4:27
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Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or Traveler’s Thrombosis occurs when blood in a vein (most often in lower extremities) becomes stagnant and then forms clot. If you think about it, the pilots are at less risk compared to passengers in this matter. FAA advices certain steps to prevent DVT, like,

  • Increasing leg muscle activity during long periods of sitting improves blood flow in the legs. This may include walking around the cabin or exercising your lower legs and ankles while seated.

  • Drinking adequate fluids, and avoiding alcohol and caffeine, may also help by preventing dehydration.

  • Some recommend taking short naps, instead of long ones, to avoid prolonged inactivity.

It would be much easier for the pilots to do these things compared to say, passengers.

  • Pilots usually have more room in the cockpit compared to passengers in cabin.

  • In long haul flights, there is usually a standby crew member who is rotated so that the pilot could get some movement and rest.

  • It is certainly practical for the pilot to get up and stretch his/her legs during flight. It is not as if they are flying the aircraft hands-on every second for the entire flight. In any case, the flying duties could be alternated between the two flight crew without any problem.

  • It is not unknown for pilots to take short naps in the cockpit

Studies indicate that the DVT is more prevalent among the passengers than the pilots. According to Deep vein thrombosis in commercial pilot:

10 percent of air travel passengers older than 50 years develop symptomless DVT during prolonged flights. DVT among air travellers has been documented, but is rare among pilots flying commercial aircraft.

Also, it seems (some pilots, at least) do wear flight socks.


It seems that the pilots don't take the wearing of oxygen mask seriously.

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  • $\begingroup$ It is not unknown for pilots to take short naps in the cockpit - This sounds a bit scary to me, and the way you worded it seems to imply that's it's frowned upon. Perhaps this should be its own question, but is this legal according to FAA or other regulations, or "normal"? $\endgroup$ – Steve Dec 11 '15 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Steve We already have a question on that $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Dec 11 '15 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ You got me to wondering why dvt is so rare in pilots compared to passengers when both are sitting for the same length of time. Did some reading and it comes down to this: risk factors. Many people who develop dvt have an underlying health condition, most of which would probably keep someone from passing a medical. Another big risk factor is women on oral contraceptives or hormone therapy. This could only apply to the approximately 5% of pilots who are female. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Dec 11 '15 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ @TomMcW Another point is that pilots are usually healthier than the general (flying) population. Symptoms of DVT will mean that the pilots cannot fly till the issue is sorted out. $\endgroup$ – aeroalias Dec 11 '15 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ Oddly enough, according to this article athletes are at a greater risk of dvt. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Dec 11 '15 at 19:38

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