Apple Watch helps warn people about life-threatening blood clots

We hear many stories from Apple Watch users saying the device alerted them to potentially life-threatening health issues. However, a new story from Ohio is one of the first of its kind.

Ken Counihan says a combination of breathing rate and blood oxygen data from his Apple Watch alerted him to a potentially deadly condition last fall…

Respiration rate and blood oxygen data from Apple Watch

That reports a local news channel News5 in Cleveland, Ohio, Counihan is an avid Apple Watch user, relying on the device for exercise tracking, sleep tracking, and much more. Last October, however, he noticed that his breathing rate had increased. Your respiratory rate is the number of breaths you take per minute, and an elevated number can signal a number of potential health problems.

The Apple Watch can track your breathing rate while you sleep. Because Counihan wears his Apple Watch to track his sleep, the Health app was able to collect his breathing rate and look for trends and changes in those trends. The Health app offers a “Health Trends” feature, which can notify you when there is a change in a specific metric.

In his case, Counihan decided to go to the outpatient clinic, where he had an x-ray and was eventually sent home with bronchitis medication.

“I received a warning in October that my breathing was elevated. So basically you have a certain number of breaths per minute, actually I said going from 14 to 17 or 18,” Counihan said. “My wife made me call my son and he suggested I go to the outpatient clinic to have it looked at, which I did. And they just did an x-ray. And they gave me some medicine for bronchitis at the time.

However, later that day, Counihan received another alert on his Apple Watch: his blood oxygen level was dropping. “My blood oxygen — which is normally in the mid-90s, which is supposed to be, about 95 and up — started to come out in the mid-80s,” he said. At the request of his family, Counihan then reluctantly went to the emergency room.

Using the numbers he provided from the Apple Watch, plus additional vitals collected in the emergency room, doctors ordered a CT scan. This CT scan revealed the underlying cause of Counihan’s symptoms. “They took me back for the CT scan and found I had blood clots all over my lungs,” he said.

Counihan was subsequently prescribed blood thinners and “feels much better”, crediting the Apple Watch for saving his life. He says doctors told him that if he had gone to bed instead of coming to the ER that night, he “might not have woken up the next morning.”

“What the doctor said as a follow-up was if I hadn’t gone in, he said that 60% of people who have this condition at that stage — if I had gone to bed, I might not have gone in the next morning woke up,” said Counihan.

“I have three kids and two grandkids, hopefully a few more grandkids in the next few years, I just want to keep enjoying that,” Counihan said. “I have friends who bought an Apple Watch as a result. I recently had dinner with a friend… and he’s now also looking for an Apple Watch. It saved my life. It is awesome.”

Dr. Lucy Franjic, an emergency physician at the Cleveland Clinic, echoed Counihan’s praise for the Apple Watch:

“We have patients who come in and they notice these trends of ‘my heart rate is higher than normal’ or ‘it shows me that … I have an abnormal rhythm,'” Franjic said. “And so having those bits of information can just help the doctor try to determine what the underlying problem is and help prevent life-threatening emergencies.”

This is an interesting look at how two pieces of data collected by the Apple Watch can be used together to alert someone to bigger health issues. Of course, the Apple Watch itself can’t alert someone to a possible blood clot, but it can provide the insight needed to prompt someone to seek further medical care.

This is also one of the first – if not the first – times we’ve used the Apple Watch’s blood oxygen function for something like this. Apple itself says the blood oxygen function is “designed for general fitness and wellness purposes only,” but the data could clearly still be broadly useful as a point of reference for other health concerns.

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