Stroke patients can reduce their risk of blood clots and death by using a compression device that wraps around their legs, according to new research published in The Lancet.

For the first time, scientists have demonstrated that the likelihood of dying after stroke is lowered by gently squeezing the legs. Experts believe that the compression decreases the risk of clots in the veins of the legs by increasing blood flow.

The results of the study showed that thigh-length intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) reduces the probability of a condition which often affects stroke patients – deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

The authors said:

“DVT can lead to pulmonary embolism, which blocks patients’ blood vessels in their lungs and can cause heart failure, killing thousands of people each year.”

The IPC sleeves only cost the NHS about £25 ($38) per pair and can be worn for several days or weeks after the patient suffers a stroke.

In order to compress the veins in the legs about every minute or so, the sleeves are inflated for a few seconds, one leg at a time.

This is the first time a treatment is available that can safely lower the risk of blood clots in the legs and the risk of dying, according to the authors.

Existing treatments that have been shown to lower the risk of DVT include blood thinning injections. However, these come with a raised risk of bleeding, which is a serious concern for stroke patients because of the possibility of bleeding into the brain.

Additionally, studies have not conclusively demonstrated that blood thinning injections can decrease the likelihood of dying after stroke.

For the new randomized trial, over 2,800 stroke patients across the UK participated. The subjects were enrolled between 2008 and 2012 and hundreds of experts from over 100 hospitals were involved in the research.

Stroke patients who are at the greatest risk of DVT include those with weakness of their arms and legs – who cannot walk on admission to hospital. About 20% of these individuals will eventually develop a blood clot in the veins in their legs.

Each year, approximately 15 million people experience a stroke worldwide. Of these patients, one third will die and another third will become permanently disabled. Stroke is the second most common cause of death around the world.

The results of the trial will be presented by Professor Martin Dennis, of the University of Edinburgh’s Division of Clinical Neurosciences at the the European Stroke Conference in London on Friday, May 31st.

Professor Dennis said:

“At last we have a simple, safe and affordable treatment that reduces the risk of DVT and even appears to reduce the risk of dying after a stroke. We estimate that this treatment could potentially help about 60,000 stroke patients each year in the UK. If this number were treated, we would prevent about 3000 developing a DVT and perhaps save 1500 lives.”

The national guidelines should be revised as a result of these new findings, Dennis pointed out.

“The current national guidelines have suggested that IPC should be considered only where blood thinning injections are unsuccessful or inappropriate, but this research suggests that IPC should be used in all patients at high risk of DVT,” he said.

Professor Tony Rudd, who chairs the Intercollegiate Stroke Guideline Group at the Royal College of Physicians, added:

“This study is a major breakthrough showing how a simple and safe treatment can save lives. It is one of the most important research studies to emerge from the field of stroke in recent years.”

Previous studies have had a difficult time finding a way to prevent blood clots from developing in the legs after stroke.

Up until this report, he explained, scientists have not been able to determine a safe and successful treatment to this common and risky complication.

“After many years of research, Prof Dennis and his Edinburgh team have finally found a safe and effective way of preventing them. The challenge now will be to ensure that all patients who might benefit are offered the treatment,” Rudd concluded.

A previous study also published in The Lancet showed how a new device can mechanically remove stroke-causing clots from the brain.

Written by Sarah Glynn