What is Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2019
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Disseminated intravascular coagulation is a very serious medical condition which is characterized by the formation of small clots of blood throughout the vascular system, the series of veins and blood vessels which supplies blood to the body. It is associated with tissue death, also known as necrosis, and it can also cause bleeding, which may seem a bit idiosyncratic at first glance, given that the condition causes blood clots. The precise cause for disseminated intravascular coagulation is unknown, and it is extremely difficult to treat; some doctors suggest that the condition's acronym, DIC, stands for “death is coming.”

The body's vascular system is maintained in a state of delicate balance. The body wants to maintain a free flow of blood to carry nutrients throughout the body, but it also wants to avoid bleeding freely every time tissues are injured. As a result, the body uses clotting agents, compounds in the blood which activate in the presence of tissue injury to cause blood to clot, thus stopping the bleeding. Disseminated intravascular coagulation is caused by out of control clotting factors, which cause small clots to form all over the body, rather than just at the site of an injury.


As one might imagine, these clots can impede circulation, causing necrosis as tissue loses access to vitally needed nutrients. It can also cause bleeding, as the body generates anticoagulants to break up the clots, and as the clotting factors are depleted. A patient with disseminated intravascular coagulation may start bleeding and be unable to stop, and this can be especially serious when the bleeding is internal, as medical personnel may not be immediately aware of the problem.

The condition is linked to several illnesses, especially in extremely ill patients like those in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Stress may also activate clotting factors. Disseminated intravascular coagulation is diagnosed with the assistance of blood tests which are analyzed to count platelets and clotting factors. When a patient presents with excessive bleeding and he or she is at risk for disseminated intravascular coagulation, doctors try to act quickly.

Treatment for this condition is very difficult. The use of anticoagulant medications can be helpful, but it can also be very dangerous as it can trigger a bleed that a patient cannot recover from. Patients may also receive transfusions of platelets, and several other medications can be used, depending on the patient's case. However, the prognosis for disseminated intravascular coagulation is not good, even with the best of medical care.


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