Anticoagulant therapy is a course of drug therapy in which anticoagulant medications are administered to a patient to slow the rate at which the patient's blood clots. There are a number of reasons for a patient to be put on anticoagulant therapy, ranging from deep vein thrombosis to atrial fibrillation. A doctor must carefully supervise the drug therapy because it carries a number of risks and the patient needs to be monitored for complications.
Anticoagulants are sometimes referred to as “blood thinners.” This is a bit erroneous, as the drugs do not thin the blood, they just inhibit the formation of clotting agents so that the blood cannot clot as easily. One popular anticoagulant drug is warfarin, administered by mouth, although other drugs may be used, and injectable medications may be utilized in intravenous anticoagulant therapy.
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This treatment is used when a patient is at risk of health problems due to clots. In atrial fibrillation, for example, pooled blood in the heart can clot, which can be dangerous. In mechanical heart valve replacement, the body may form clots around the new valve because it views the valve as a threat, which puts the patient at risk. Patients with existing clots may be put on anticoagulant therapy to prevent the clotting from getting worse, as seen in pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis.
The doctor determines an appropriate dosage and puts the patient on a medication schedule which keeps anticoagulant levels in the blood stable. Many drugs can interact dangerously with anticoagulants, making it important to talk to the patient about other drugs being used. Anticoagulation therapy guidelines vary by patient and situation, and a doctor must take care to confirm that the course of therapy is appropriate. Certain activities can also be dangerous for patients taking anticoagulants, making it wise to take a full patient history to learn about the patient's lifestyle and identify any risk factors which could complicate anticoagulant therapy.
The big risk with anticoagulation therapy is that the patient is more susceptible to bleeding. Patients bruise easily, bleed freely from even small cuts, and can be at risk of complications related to the fact that their blood has difficulty clotting. If a patient needs surgery, for example, the procedure can be very dangerous because of the lowered clotting factors in the blood. Hence, a doctor has to carefully review risks and benefits with the patient to make sure that the patient understands why the therapy is being used, and what types of risks are associated with it.