Clinical presentation and diagnosis: Swelling (80% of patients) and pain (40% of patients) are the most common UEDVT symptoms at presentation.2 Other clinical features include new, prominent veins throughout the shoulder girdle, erythema, increased warmth, functional impairment, parathesias, and non-specific feelings of arm heaviness or discomfort. Symptoms typically worsen with arm use and improve with rest and elevation.15 Patients with UEDVT related to CVC are more likely to be asymptomatic and may present only with PE.16 The differential diagnosis includes superficial phlebitis, lymphatic edema, hematoma, contusions, venous compression, and muscle tears.17
Contrast venography is the gold standard for the UEDVT diagnosis. However, it is more expensive and invasive than ultrasound, and thus serial compression ultrasound is now the standard test in UEDVT evaluation. Then again, contrast venography remains the test of choice in patients with high pre-test probability and negative ultrasound results.18,19
Prevention: Nearly 70% of secondary UEDVT is associated with a CVC.5 Further, CVC use is the most powerful predictor of UEDVT (adjusted odds ratio (OR), 9.7; 95% CI, 7.8 to 12.2).2 Despite the association between CVCs and UEDVT, anticoagulant prophylaxis is not recommended. Studies evaluating the results of 1-mg warfarin conflict and include small populations. Warfarin’s potential interaction with antibiotics and dosing variance based on nutritional intake logically prompted studies on the potential benefit of low-weight molecular heparain (LWMH); however, these studies have failed to show benefit.20,21
Treatment: ACCP guidelines recommend treating UEDVT patients with unfractionated heparin (UFH) or LMWH and warfarin, with an INR goal of 2 to 3 for at least three months depending upon the overall clinical scenario. Two small studies evaluating catheter-related thrombosis (15 patients in each trial) reported no subsequent embolic phenomenon.22,23 Some authors interpreted this data to mean UEDVT was not as morbid as LEDVT and, subsequently, that catheter-related UEDVTs require only one month of therapy. Since the small studies were published, the increasing incidence and relevance of UEDVT have become more widely recognized, and most authors are recommending three months of treatment.
Still, it’s important to note that there aren’t any published data directly comparing the one-month and the three-month anticoagulation therapies. The RIETE registry, which is the largest ongoing published registry of patients with confirmed DVT or PE, reports similar three-month clinical outcomes between those with UEDVT and LEDVT.
Small, single-center trials have shown that such active interventions as thrombolysis, surgery, or multi-staged approaches are associated with increased vein patency and decreased rates of post-thrombotic syndrome.24,25 However, ACCP has withheld general recommendations for these interventions based on a lack of sufficient data to comment on their overall safety and efficacy, as well as comparable rates of post-thrombotic syndrome (15% to 50%) in studies that directly compared surgical and medical intervention. In fact, the ACCP recommends against interventional treatments unless the patient has failed anticoagulation therapy, has severe symptoms, and expertise is available.4
Superior vena cava filters are available at some centers for patients in whom anticoagulation is contraindicated, but efficacy data is limited. While the data for filter use in UEDVT is limited, its use should be considered in patients who have a contraindication to anticoagulation and remain high risk for UEDVT (e.g., prolonged central line placement).
Complications: Post-thrombotic syndrome (PTS) is the most significant local complication of UEDVT. PTS characteristics are edema, pain, venous ulcers, and skin pigmentation changes, and it is the result of chronic venous insufficiency due to the clot. A meta-analysis of clinical studies on UEDVT noted that PTS occurs in 7% to 46% (mean 15%) of patients.26 One hypothesis for the wide range in frequency is the lack of clear diagnostic criteria for PTS.27 No clear beneficial treatment or prevention for PTS exists, but many recommend graduated compression stockings for the arm.