Superficial Thrombophlebitis Symptoms, Treatment, and Prognosis

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Treatment of almost all medical conditions has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. NICE has issued rapid update guidelines in relation to many of these. This guidance is changing frequently. Please visit https://www.nice.org.uk/covid-19 to see if there is temporary guidance issued by NICE in relation to the management of this condition, which may vary from the information given below.

Superficial thrombophlebitis occurs when a superficial vein (usually the long saphenous vein of the leg or its tributaries) becomes inflamed and the blood within it clots. It may be spontaneous or associated with one or more risk factors - eg, varicose veins.

It is usually a benign self-limiting disease but it can be difficult to treat and slow to resolve.

This is a very common condition and, although figures are difficult to find. Some reports estimate an incidence of between 3-11% of the general population[1].

It has a female preponderance, and seasonal variation (more common in warmer months) has also been reported[2].

Risk factors for thrombophlebitis[1]

The three cardinal risk factors (Virchow's triad) are:

  • Damage to the blood vessel wall (as a result of trauma, infection, or inflammation), including varicose veins.
  • Stasis of blood flow.
  • Hypercoagulability of blood.

Other specific risk factors include:

  • Obesity.
  • Thrombophilia.
  • Previous history of superficial vein thrombosis.
  • Smoking.
  • Oral contraceptives.
  • Pregnancy[3].
  • Intravenous drug abuse.
  • Intravenous infusion (especially if an irritant substance was infused)[4].

There are various different presentations of superficial thrombophlebitis:

  • Superficial thrombophlebitis usually occurs in the lower extremities but occurs also in the penis and the breast (Mondor's disease)[5].
  • Traumatic thrombophlebitis follows an injury. There is a tender cord along the course of a vein and bruising.
  • Thrombophlebitis frequently occurs with an intravenous cannula. Either the cannula or the infusion, including drugs, may have caused the inflammation. A small lump may appear days or weeks after the cannula has been removed and it can take months to resolve completely. The common sites coincide with those of common medical interventions (arm or neck with external jugular vein cannulation).
  • Iatrogenic chemical phlebitis is deliberately produced by sclerotherapy.
  • Thrombophlebitis in a varicose vein develops as a tender hard knot in the vein. There is often erythema, and bleeding may occur as the reaction extends through the vein wall. It is common with venous stasis ulcers.
  • Septic phlebitis usually occurs with long-term use of an intravenous cannula. It is also common in intravenous drug abusers who use dirty equipment and have poor technique.
  • Suppurative thrombophlebitis is a serious complication when there is pus in the vein and septicaemia may develop[6].
  • Thrombosis of a haemorrhoid or perianal haematoma is a superficial thrombophlebitis. Incision and removal of the thrombus relieves the condition.

Signs

  • There is redness with tenderness along the vein with swelling.
  • Spontaneous thrombophlebitis usually develops in the greater saphenous vein, often with varicose veins. 
  • Usually no further investigation is indicated.
  • Venography is not usually required and should be avoided if possible, as the contrast medium may aggravate the condition.
  • If a septic cannula is suspected, it should be removed and sent for culture.
  • Recurrent thromboses in superficial veins at various sites are called migratory thrombophlebitis. This is a pointer for malignancy, especially carcinoma of the tail of pancreas[7, 8].
  • Phlebitis occurs in diseases associated with vasculitis, such as polyarteritis nodosa and Buerger's disease, which Buerger reported in 1909.

General measures

  • Elastic support of the limb reduces swelling and eases discomfort.
  • Severe thrombophlebitis does not usually require bed rest unless there is severe pain on movement. The affected extremity should be elevated if possible and large, warm compresses may be applied, although the evidence base for their effectiveness is limited and care must be taken to avoid burning the patient[9].
  • Exercise reduces pain and the possibility of DVT. Only in cases in which pain is very severe is bed rest necessary. DVT prophylaxis should be established in patients with reduced mobility[10].
  • Keeping the leg elevated when sitting may improve venous blood flow and reduce swelling.

Pharmacological

  • Topical anti-inflammatory creams applied locally to the superficial vein thrombosis/superficial thrombophlebitis area controls mild symptoms.
  • Otherwise an oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and/or paracetamol will be required for pain relief.
  • Low molecular weight heparin (LMWH) and fondaparinux have been shown to reduce the risk of superficial vein thrombosis extension and recurrence.
  • Prophylactic fondaparinux given for 45 days appears to be an effective option for superficial thrombophlebitis for most people[11].
  • Fondaparinux significantly reduces the risk of symptomatic venous thromboembolism and may be considered in people at increased risk of a DVT or PE - eg, those with superficial thrombus near the saphenofemoral junction.

Antibiotics are only required if there is evidence of infection.

Surgical

If there are recurrences of the thrombophlebitis associated with extensive varicose veins, they should be excised.

  • Extension into the deep veins, with possible development of deep vein thrombosis and/or pulmonary embolism (PE)[12, 13].
  • Damage to valves may lead to varicose veins.
  • Suppurative phlebitis can lead to metastatic abscesses and septicaemia.
  • Hyperpigmentation over the vein.
  • Persistent firm nodule in subcutaneous tissues at the affected site.
  • The prognosis is usually good for uncomplicated superficial thrombophlebitis. Symptoms generally subside in 1-2 weeks. Hardness of the vein may persist for several weeks to months.
  • The risk of recurrence ranges between 1.6-12.2% in treated cases and 3.3-36.7% in untreated cases, depending on the presence or absence of underlying risk factors.
  • It rarely leads to PE, although it can occur if the process extends into a deep vein.
  • People with superficial venous thrombosis do not seem predisposed to develop DVT but superficial venous thrombosis does frequently occur in association with DVT, especially with stasis ulceration around the ankle.
  • Where venous thromboembolism precedes thrombophlebitis, there is an increased risk of further DVT and possible PE[14].

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Further reading and references

  1. Superficial vein thrombosis (superficial thrombophlebitis); NICE CKS March 2020 (UK access only)

  2. Kakkos SK, Lampropoulos G, Papadoulas S, et al; Seasonal variation in the incidence of superficial venous thrombophlebitis. Thromb Res. 2010 Aug126(2):98-102.

  3. Kupelian AS, Huda MS; Pregnancy, thrombophlebitis and thromboembolism: what every obstetrician should know. Arch Gynecol Obstet. 2007 Mar275(3):215-7. Epub 2006 Aug 10.

  4. Eyigor C, Ceylan A, Demir F, et al; Superficial venous thrombophlebitis caused by rocuronium. J Anesth. 2010 Aug24(4):646-8. Epub 2010 Apr 22.

  5. Laroche JP, Galanaud J, Labau D, et al; Mondor's disease: what's new since 1939? Thromb Res. 2012 Oct130 Suppl 1:S56-8. doi: 10.1016/j.thromres.2012.08.276.

  6. Chirinos JA, Garcia J, Alcaide ML, et al; Septic thrombophlebitis: diagnosis and management. Am J Cardiovasc Drugs. 20066(1):9-14.

  7. Diaconu C, Mateescu D, Balaceanu A, et al; Pancreatic cancer presenting with paraneoplastic thrombophlebitis--case report. J Med Life. 2010 Jan-Mar3(1):96-9.

  8. van Weert HC, Pingen F; Recurrent thromboflebitis as a warning sign for cancer: a case report. Cases J. 2009 Oct 132:153.

  9. Litzendorf ME, Satiani B; Superficial venous thrombosis: disease progression and evolving treatment approaches. Vasc Health Risk Manag. 20117:569-75. doi: 10.2147/VHRM.S15562. Epub 2011 Aug 31.

  10. Cesarone MR, Belcaro G, Agus G, et al; Management of superficial vein thrombosis and thrombophlebitis: status and expert opinion document. Angiology. 2007 Apr-May58 Suppl 1:7S-14S

  11. Di Nisio M, Wichers IM, Middeldorp S; Treatment for superficial thrombophlebitis of the leg. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Feb 252:CD004982. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004982.pub6.

  12. Dewar C, Panpher S; Incidence of deep vein thrombosis in patients diagnosed with superficial thrombophlebitis after presenting to an emergency department outpatient deep vein thrombosis service. Emerg Med J. 2010 Oct27(10):758-61. Epub 2010 Jun 17.

  13. Decousus H, Quere I, Presles E, et al; Superficial venous thrombosis and venous thromboembolism: a large, prospective epidemiologic study. Ann Intern Med. 2010 Feb 16152(4):218-24.

  14. Schonauer V, Kyrle PA, Weltermann A, et al; Superficial thrombophlebitis and risk for recurrent venous thromboembolism. J Vasc Surg. 2003 Apr37(4):834-8.

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