Axillary Vein Thrombosis

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

See also: Anticoagulants written for patients

Synonyms: Paget-von Schrötter disease, axillary subclavian deep vein thrombosis (ASDVT), upper-extremity deep vein thrombosis, upper-limb deep vein thrombosis, effort-induced thrombosis

Acute swelling and pain in the upper limb due to occlusion of the axillary and/or subclavian veins by thrombus. This may occur as a a primary phenomenon or as a result of the placement of an indwelling venous catheter, thrombophilia or thoracic outlet syndrome.

See also the separate article on Deep Vein Thrombosis.

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  • There is a low incidence of about 2 per 100,000 people per year.[1] 
  • Approximately 4-10% of all cases of venous thrombosis may involve the subclavian, axillary or brachial veins.[2] 
  • It is now more common due to the growing use of central venous cannulation in a variety of medical procedures.[3] It occurs in about 25% of patients who undergo prolonged central venous cannulation, although it is often not recognised.
  • About 80% of primary cases occur in the dominant arm. It is also seen in young, otherwise healthy, individuals who participate in repetitive upper limb exercises.[1]
  • One study reported that patients who had an upper limb deep vein thrombosis (DVT) were more likely to be younger and with a lower BMI.[4]

Risk factors[5] 

  • The presence of a central venous catheter.[4] 
  • Venous compression in the thoracic outlet syndrome.
  • Malignancy.
  • Oral contraceptives, pregnancy.
  • Congenital thrombophilia, acquired coagulation defects.
  • Diabetes mellitus.
  • Obesity, smoking habit or intense sports activity.

Symptoms

Symptoms can be intermittent, or can develop during a period of up to one week.[6] 

  • Patients tend to present with discomfort and swelling, associated with discolouration of the hand.
  • 7-20% of cases may lead to pulmonary embolism (PE) with features of pleuritic chest pain, breathlessness and haemoptysis.[1]

Signs

  • Physical examination may show low-grade fever due to thrombus formation. Higher fevers are seen with septic thrombophlebitis or in patients with associated malignancy.[6] 
  • Oedema of the arm and hand - measure the biceps/forearm diameter at a fixed distance from an anatomical landmark.
  • Mild-to-moderate cyanosis of the hand.
  • Dilated superficial collateral veins may be seen over the chest and upper arm - may be the only indicator in central venous cannulation.
  • Fullness in the supraclavicular fossa and even a palpable cord of thrombosed vein.
  • Jugular vein may be distended.
  • Initial evaluation with combined modality ultrasound (compression with either Doppler or colour Doppler) has been recommended rather than other initial tests, including highly sensitive D-dimer or venography.[8] 
  • In patients with suspected upper extremity DVT in whom initial ultrasound is negative for thrombosis despite a high clinical suspicion of DVT, further testing with a moderate or highly sensitive D-dimer, serial ultrasound, or venography (traditional, CT scan, or MRI) is recommended rather than no further testing.[8] 
  • Duplex ultrasonography is sensitive and specific.
  • Other imaging options include angiography or MRI angiography.
  • It is uncertain whether routine thrombophilic screening in patients with this condition is worthwhile. It is probably useful where it occurs idiopathically, with a family history of thrombosis or history of recurrent miscarriage or previous DVT.
  • Imaging investigations to detect thoracic outlet syndrome should depend on the degree of clinical suspicion of this cause.
  • In idiopathic cases one should consider investigations to look for an occult malignancy or thrombophilia.
  • Acute treatment with parenteral anticoagulation (low molecular weight heparin, fondaparinux, intravenous/subcutaneous unfractionated heparin) is recommended. Low molecular weight heparin or fondaparinux are preferred.
  • Anticoagulant therapy is recommended in preference to thrombolysis. Anticoagulation should be for a minimum of three months.
  • For patients who undergo thrombolysis, the same intensity and duration of anticoagulant therapy should be used as for those patients who do not undergo thrombolysis.
  • For those patients with upper extremity DVT that is associated with a central venous catheter, it is recommended that the catheter should not be removed if it is functional and there is an ongoing need for the catheter.
  • If the catheter is not removed then anticoagulation should be continued as long as the central venous catheter remains but there should be a minimum of three months of treatment.
  • A trial of compression bandages or sleeves to reduce symptoms is recommended for post-thrombotic syndrome of the arm (chronic venous insufficiency that may cause pain, oedema, pigmentation, skin changes and venous ulcers).

The use of anticoagulant prophylaxis in patients who are acutely ill and those who undergo central venous catheterisation may prevent upper extremity DVT. However, the efficacy of anticoagulant prophylaxis has not been clearly evaluated at present.[4]

Associated with significant morbidity and mortality due to potential risks of pulmonary embolism, post-thrombotic syndrome and loss of vascular access.[9] 

  • About 7-20% develop pulmonary embolism (PE) and 1% die.
  • Recurrent thrombosis affects between 2% and 10% of patients.
  • Post-thrombotic syndrome affects around 25% (see 'Complications', below).[10]
  • Pulmonary embolism (PE) has been detected on radiological grounds in up to 20% of patients with upper limb DVT (incidence is highest in untreated/catheter cases).
  • Phlegmasia caerulea dolens (PCD) may occur (rarely); there is arterial and venous compromise and a risk of gangrene.
  • Compartment syndrome.
  • Recurrent thrombosis.
  • Post-thrombotic syndrome - chronic upper limb pain and swelling.
  • Stroke following paradoxical embolisation in cases with a patent foramen ovale.
  • Right ventricular failure.
  • Thoracic duct obstruction.
  • Chylous pleural or pericardial effusion.

Further reading & references

  1. Roche-Nagle G, Ryan R, Barry M, et al; Effort thrombosis of the upper extremity in a young sportsman: Paget-Schroetter syndrome. Br J Sports Med. 2007 Aug;41(8):540-1; discussion 541. Epub 2007 Feb 8.
  2. Spiezia L, Simioni P; Upper extremity deep vein thrombosis. Intern Emerg Med. 2009 Sep 26.
  3. Lee JA, Zierler BK, Zierler RE; The risk factors and clinical outcomes of upper extremity deep vein thrombosis. Vasc Endovascular Surg. 2012 Feb;46(2):139-44. doi: 10.1177/1538574411432145. Epub 2012 Feb 9.
  4. Spencer FA, Emery C, Lessard D, et al; Upper extremity deep vein thrombosis: a community-based perspective. Am J Med. 2007 Aug;120(8):678-84.
  5. Garofalo R, Notarnicola A, Moretti L, et al; Deep vein thromboembolism after arthroscopy of the shoulder: two case reports and a review of the literature. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2010 Apr 8;11:65. doi: 10.1186/1471-2474-11-65.
  6. Sadeghi R, Safi M; Systemic thrombolysis in the upper extremity deep vein thrombosis. ARYA Atheroscler. 2011 Spring;7(1):40-6.
  7. Amir-Us-Saqlain H, Javaid A, Hashmi I, et al; Upper extremity deep vein thrombosis. J Coll Physicians Surg Pak. 2005 May;15(5):309-10.
  8. Guyatt GH, Akl EA, Crowther M, et al; Executive summary: Antithrombotic Therapy and Prevention of Thrombosis, 9th ed: American College of Chest Physicians Evidence-Based Clinical Practice Guidelines. Chest. 2012 Feb;141(2 Suppl):7S-47S. doi: 10.1378/chest.1412S3.
  9. Sajid MS, Ahmed N, Desai M, et al; Upper limb deep vein thrombosis: a literature review to streamline the protocol for management. Acta Haematol. 2007;118(1):10-8. Epub 2007 Apr 10.
  10. Prandoni P, Bernardi E, Marchiori A, et al; The long term clinical course of acute deep vein thrombosis of the arm: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2004 Aug 28;329(7464):484-5. Epub 2004 Jul 15.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Gurvinder Rull
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
1838 (v23)
Last Checked:
21/02/2014
Next Review:
20/02/2019

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