>Superficial can also be Deep – Superficial Thrombophlebitis

Superficial Thrombophlebitis – an approach to diagnosis and management

Resident Clinical Pearl (RCP) May 2020

Dr. Devon Webster – PGY2 FMEM Dalhousie University, Saint John NB

Reviewed by Dr. David Lewis

 


Case

Claude Virchow is a 59-year-old gentleman who presents to your emergency department complaining of pain to his medial right leg. 2 days ago, he bumped his knee and since then, has developed a hard, rope-like, tender swelling along the inside of his knee. On exam, you see the following image and he winces as you palpate along the indurated cord.

Figure 1 Source

In the next bed over, is a 39-year-old man presents with similar induration along his antecubital fossa bilaterally. He has a history of IVDU and was seen a week prior for the same problem. He is back as the indurated areas seem to be extending and his pain is worsening despite abstinence from injection and adherence to conservative measures. There are no signs of infection.

What are your recommendations?


 

What is superficial thrombophlebitis?

  • Thrombus formation in a superficial vein with associated inflammation of the vessel wall.
  • Typically involves the lower extremities with greater saphenous vein involvement in 60-80% of cases
  • Less commonly, affects the superficial veins of the upper extremities, neck (external jugular) or causes ‘Mondor’s syndrome,’ a superficial thrombophlebitis of the anterior chest wall.

 

Why does it matter?

  • In patients with superficial venous thrombosis (ST) >5cm in length, approximately 20% have a concomitant DVT and 4% have a PE
  • Some patients with ST may be candidates for anticoagulation

 

Anatomy review:

  • Lower extremity:
    • Superficial venous system: primarily comprised of the greater and lesser saphenous veins (aka long and short saphenous veins)
    • Deep venous system: anterior tibial, peroneal and femoral veins.
    • The saphenofemoral junction (SFJ) forms the connection between the deep and superficial systems.
  • Upper extremity:
    • Superficial: digital, metacarpal, cephalic, basilic and median veins
    • Deep: radial, ulnar, brachial, axillary, subclavian veins

Figure 2 Source


 

Figure 3 Source


 

Risk Factors:

  • The same as VTE! E.g. malignancy, trauma, hormone therapy, etc.
  • Varicose veins account for up to 90% of cases of lower limb ST and risk factors for varicose veins (e.g. lack of physical activity, venous stasis) increase the risk of ST.
  • Risk factors suggesting concomitant DVT when ST is also present: age >60, male sex, bilateral ST, presence of systemic infection, absence of varicose veins.
  • Mondor’s: often associated with breast reconstruction

 

History & Physical:

  • The patient may describe a painful, erythematous, swollen, hard vein that is tender to touch.
  • Inquire about symptoms and looks for signs suggestive of DVT, PE or secondary infection.
  • Low grade fever may be present in uncomplicated ST but higher fevers and erythema extending beyond the borders of the vein suggest suppurative ST.
  • Ask about risk factors as per VTE though may be idiopathic.
  • Note that a D-Dimer is not a helpful tool for distinguishing ST from DVT

 

Which patients with superficial thrombophlebitis require ultrasonography?  

  • Lower limb:
    • US recommended for MOST patients
    • If clinical picture is not obvious
    • If suspected concomitant DVT
    • ST is above the knee, especially if above mid-thigh
    • ST is in the upper calf near perforating veins in the popliteal fossa
  • Upper limbs:
    • Patients with ST of veins approaching the deep venous system (basilic, cephalic veins) that do not respond to conservative measures or have progression of their symptoms should undergo duplex US to evaluate for clot extension.
  • Mondor’s (anterior chest): US rarely required

 

Key points on ultrasound report:

  • For lower extremities, assess proximity to the saphenofemoral junction (SFJ) and the length of the ST. Specifically determine if ST is >5cm in length or if <3cm proximity to the SFJ.
  • Rule out DVT
  • Rule out other causes of pain (e.g. popliteal cyst, muscle mass)

 

Treatment:

  • General measures:
    • Non-pharmacologic
      • Elevate extremity
      • Apply continuous, moist heat x72 hrs
      • Remove any offending solution or catheter
      • Encourage early mobility
    • Pharmacologic
      • Tylenol, NSAIDs
      • Topical NSAIDs
      • Do not give antibiotics unless signs of infection.
  • Upper extremity ST
    • Anticoagulation?
      • Limited data to guide management!
      • Some experts would suggest consideration of anticoagulation for patients with ST that are at risk for DVT (e.g. ST in veins in close proximity to deep veins).
      • May consider anticoagulation for pts with persistent symptoms despite conservative mgmt. (e.g. ongoing excessive pain and swelling) as anticoagulation is effective in alleviating symptoms, especially if ST precipitated by malignancy.
      • However, when considering treatment, important to note that PE from upper extremity ST is rare!

 

  • Mondor’s (chest well) ST
    • Self-limited. Conservative management.

 

  • Lower limb ST (see algorithm below):
    • ST within 3 cm of saphenofemoral junction: therapeutic dose of anticoagulation for 3 months
      • g.: rivaroxaban 15mg PO BID x3 weeks, followed by 20 mg OD, warfarin, full dose LMWH
    • ST >/5cm in length but >3 cm from saphenofemoral junction: prophylactic doses of anticoagulation
      • g.: rivaroxaban 10mg PO OD, dalteparin 5,000U SC q24hrs
    • ST <5cm, >3 cm from saphenofemoral junction but with severe symptoms or risk factors for extension: prophylactic doses of anticoagulant for up to 45 days
    • ST <5cm, >3cm from saphenofemoral junction, no severe symptoms or risk factors: conservative treatment

Figure 4 Approach to lower limb superficial thrombophlebitis. Source: Thrombosis Canada

 


 

Disposition & Prognosis:

  • Patients with extensive or recurrent ST should be referred to a specialist
  • Isolated lower limb uncomplicated ST not affecting the great or small saphenous veins and no risk factors for DVT: organize repeat clinical examination in 7-10 days to assess for resolution or progression. If symptoms or exam worsens, order ultrasound.
  • Resolution of ST may take up to 2-6 weeks.

 

Bottom Lines:

  • Superficial thrombophlebitis may be associated with DVT in up to 20% of cases and PE in up to 4%.
  • Ultrasound should be organized for most patients with lower limb ST and for some patients with upper extremity ST (progressive symptoms and concern for extension to deep venous system)
  • Patients with lower limb ST within 3 cm of the saphenofemoral junction should be treated with full dose anticoagulants. Those with ST >5 cm in length but farther from the SFJ, with severe symptoms or at high risk for clot extension should be treated with lower doses of anticoagulant.
  • Consider anticoagulants for patients with upper extremity ST with severe persistent symptoms not responding to conservative measures to alleviate their discomfort.
  • Patients with uncomplicated lower limb ST should have follow up organized within 7-10 days.

 

References:

  1. Chopra, V. Uptodate. Catheter-related upper extremity venous thrombosis [internet]. 2019 Nov 14. Available from: https://www.uptodate.com/contents/catheter-related-upper-extremity-venous-thrombosis?search=Catheter%20related%20upper%20extremity%20venous%20thrombosis&source=search_result&selectedTitle=1~150&usage_type=default&display_rank=1
  2. Scovell, S. Uptodate. Phlebitis and thrombosis of the superficial lower extremity veins [internet]. 2019 Oct 3. Available from: https://www.uptodate.com/contents/phlebitis-and-thrombosis-of-the-superficial-lower-extremity-veins?search=Phlebitis%20and%20thrombosis%20of%20the%20superficial%20lower%20extremity%20veins&source=search_result&selectedTitle=1~150&usage_type=default&display_rank=1
  3. Thrombosis Canada. Superficial Thrombophlebitis, Superficial Vein Thrombosis [internet]. 2019 Mar 25. Available from: https://thrombosiscanada.ca/clinicalguides/?search=superficial%20thrombophlebitis#
  4. Thrombosis Canada. Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT): Treatment [internet]. 2016 May 19. Available from: http://thrombosiscanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/3_Deep-Vein-Thrombosis-Treatment-2016May19-FINAL.pdf
  5. Mustonen, P. EBM Guidelines. Superficial venous thrombophlebitis [internet]. 2020 Mar 16. Available from: https://www.ebm-guidelines.com/ebmg/ltk.free?p_artikkeli=ebm00920
  6. Venes, D. Taber’s Medical Dictionary. Phlebitis [Internet]. Available from: https://www.tabers.com/tabersonline/view/Tabers-Dictionary/749144/all/phlebitis.
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