Professional Reference 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.
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, it seems to be more common in those aged over 60. It has a female preponderance and seasonal variation (more common in warmer months) has also been reported.
The three cardinal risk factors (Virchow's triad) are:
- Damage to the blood vessel wall (as a result of trauma, infection, or inflammation).
- Stasis of blood flow.
- Hypercoagulability of blood.
Other specific risk factors include:
- Oral contraceptives.
- Intravenous drug abuse.
- Intravenous infusion (especially if an irritant substance was infused).
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).
- 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.
- Thrombosis of a haemorrhoid or perianal haematoma is a superficial thrombophlebitis. Incision and removal of the thrombus relieves the condition.
- There is redness and tenderness along the vein with swelling.
- Spontaneous thrombophlebitis usually develops in the greater saphenous vein, often with varicose veins.
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
- Ruptured medial head of gastrocnemius.
- 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.[6, 7]
- Phlebitis occurs in diseases associated with vasculitis, such as polyarteritis nodosa and Buerger's disease, which Buerger reported in 1909.
- 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.
- 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.
- Topical analgesia with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory creams applied locally to the superficial vein thrombosis/superficial thrombophlebitis area controls symptoms.
- Hirudoid® cream (heparinoid) shortens the duration of signs/symptoms, although there is some evidence to suggest that heparin gel 1,000 IU/g may be more effective.[9, 10]
- An intermediate dose of low molecular weight heparin for at least a month might be advisable, although data currently available are too limited to make clear recommendations.Further research is needed to assess optimal doses and duration of treatment and whether a combination therapy may be more effective than a single treatment.
- Fondaparinux® at a dose of 2.5 mg once a day for 45 days has been reported to lower the risk of pulmonary embolism (PE) or DVT by 85%. It has also been shown to reduce the risk of extension of thrombophlebitis and recurrence. There were few adverse events and the number needed to treat was 88 (to prevent one PE or DVT).
Antibiotics are only required if there is evidence of infection.
If there are recurrences of the thrombophlebitis associated with extensive varicose veins, they should be excised.
- Extension into the deep veins.[13, 14]
- 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 but the disease process will persist for three or four weeks or more. If it occurs in association with varicose veins there is a high risk of recurrence unless the vein is excised.
- 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.
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Further reading & references
- Thrombophlebitis - superficial; NICE CKS, May 2014 (UK access only)
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