Antiphospholipid Syndrome

A disorder that increases the risk that blood clots will form in the veins and arteries. Antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) affects many more women than men. Sometimes nicknamed “sticky blood syndrome,” it can appear on its own but is often associated with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE or lupus) and other autoimmune conditions. People with APS have high levels of antiphospholipid antibodies in their blood. These antibodies — immune-system proteinsincrease the tendency of blood to form into clots, which can lodge in the veins and arteries.

People with APS are at increased risk of a host of problems such as anemia, deep vein thrombosis (a blood clot that forms in a deep vein), heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, dementia, chronic headache, peripheral vascular disease, and pulmonary embolism (a life-threatening condition in which a blood clot travels to the lungs). In pregnant women, APS can lead to miscarriage, premature birth, and other pregnancy complications.

APS is diagnosed when an individual has a history of blood clots or of miscarriage and/or premature births and blood tests have shown the presence of antiphospholipid antibodies. The presence of the antibodies alone does not warrant a diagnosis of APS. Many people have antiphospholipid antibodies in their blood but do not have APS. Up to 40% of people with lupus, for example, test positive for the antibodies, but only about half of these 40% have symptoms.

Treatment for APS is aimed at thinning the blood to reduce blood clotting. The standard treatments are anti-clotting drugs such as aspirin, warfarin (Coumadin), and heparin. As warfarin has been known to cause birth defects, doctors treat pregnant women with heparin. In addition, women with APS, especially those with a history of pregnancy complications, must be monitored very closely during pregnancy.

People with APS are also advised to stop smoking, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet to guard against other health conditions that add to the risk of developing blood clots, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Individuals who have already developed these conditions must get treatment to control them.

Robert S. Dinsmoor is a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

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