Sitting on a plane for hours – what is the impact on your body?

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Today, you can travel from one end of the world to another in a day. It just takes time. Either you reach your destination on a direct flight, or you have to change planes. On long-haul flights, you usually pass the time by watching a movie, listening to music, eating or sleeping. But what happens to your body during this time? Sitting for long periods and the plane’s altitude affect your body. You may also need to make preparations.

What happens in the body during long flights?
But why are long-haul flights risky? Due to the long immobility period, emphasize Prof. Dr. Löllgen and Prof. Dr. Heribert Schunkert, Clinic Director at the German Heart Center Munich. As Prof. Dr. Löllgen explains, sitting for long periods can have consequences: “Blood circulation in the leg vessels and abdominal vessels slows down. Muscle or calf cramps and even thrombosis (blood clots; editor’s note) can occur.” Prof. Dr. Schunkert explains, “Sitting in a confined position for many hours reduces blood circulation in the legs. In the process, the blood can collect in the veins of the lower legs, which are also constricted by the angled posture, following the force of gravity. Wherever blood comes to a standstill, clots can form. These can then be carried to the lungs and, in the worst case lead to a pulmonary embolism.”

Does it make a difference if you sleep during the flight?
Sleeping during a long-haul flight has no positive or negative effect on the body. “What is decisive for the risk of thrombosis or pulmonary embolism is the lack of movement and the cramped, seated posture. It doesn’t matter whether you are awake or asleep,” says Prof. Dr. Schunkert. However, the sleepers move their legs even less, says Prof. Dr. Löllgen. Raising the legs is one way to relieve the body, but it is often not possible for reasons of space. Therefore, his tip is: “Drink something before sleeping, preferably water.”

Risk of thrombosis
The risk of thrombosis and pulmonary embolism is not to be trifled with. “In a pulmonary embolism, the blood vessels in the pulmonary circulation become blocked. As a result, the blood can no longer be adequately oxygenated,” explains Prof. Dr. Schunkert. “In the worst case, the blood supply to the lungs is completely blocked by the clots, the heart pumps itself empty and the circulation collapses. In this case, it is a life-threatening pulmonary embolism.”

Research into how the body reacts to long nonstop flights is still in its early stages. Until then, the advice for long-haul flights is relatively simple: follow the airlines’ instructions, try to move around the cabin during the flight, drink water, wear a mask and follow hygiene rules. Seek medical attention after the flight if you have troubling symptoms, as it can take hours or even days for a blood clot (thrombosis) to form, grow and move through the veins.

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