updated 11/14/2005 5:37:43 PM ET 2005-11-14T22:37:43

New moms should get up and start walking as soon as possible to prevent the risk of a potentially fatal blood clot, doctors advise.

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Although the chances of such clots are rare, they are four times greater for pregnant women and new mothers, a large 30-year study found, confirming what doctors have long observed.

Mayo Clinic researchers looked at medical records from 1966 to 1995 of 50,000 pregnant women who lived in Olmstead County, Minn., where data has long been gathered for a long-term health surveillance project.

The researchers focused on blood clots in leg veins (known as deep vein thrombosis) and clots that broke loose and lodged in the lungs (known as pulmonary embolism).

The incidences of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism were small — only 105 cases occurred over the 30-year period — but the problem is of concern because it is frequently fatal when it does happen.

In roughly one-fourth of pulmonary embolism cases in general, the first and only symptom is sudden death, said Dr. John A. Heit, lead author of the study appearing in Tuesday’s Annals of Internal Medicine.

When the researchers compared similar age groups, they found the pregnant women and those who had given birth within the past three months were four times more likely to have these serious blood clot problems than non-pregnant women.

Nearly all of the women in the study were white, so researchers said their findings might not apply to women of other races.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Dr. Richard V. Lee of the State University of New York at Buffalo said that within the past 20 to 30 years pulmonary embolism has overtaken all other causes of maternal mortality.

An American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists committee is drawing up guidelines on the subject, said Dr. Gary Hankins, an obstetrician and the committee’s chair.

The top tip for all new moms: Get out of bed and start walking as soon as possible. For women with risk factors — such as obesity, a history of clots, and prolonged bed rest during pregnancy — doctors may consider using leg compression devices in the hospital to get the blood moving.

But blood thinners don’t lead the list of possible solutions because of potential complications, like excessive bleeding.

“Anticoagulants should be reserved for a very small group, those only with a significant risk,” Hankins said. “We don’t want to recommend a strategy that could do more harm than good.”

Heit said aspirin has been shown to be effective for preventing stroke and heart attack but it appears not to help prevent blood clots in leg veins.

Deep vein thrombosis, most commonly known as a potential danger of long airplane flights, strikes an estimated 2 million Americans a year, and about 200,000 Americans die every year from pulmonary embolisms.

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