Superior vena cava syndrome

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Superior vena cava syndrome

Question

What is superior vena cava syndrome?

Rhonda
Ohio

Answer

Superior vena cava syndrome is a group of signs and symptoms caused by a blockage of the large vein (superior vena cava) that carries blood from the head and upper part of the body back to the heart. This leads to visible engorgement of the veins above the blockage.

Signs and symptoms are usually worse when lying down and may include:

  • Bluish appearance of the skin (cyanosis) of the face and upper body
  • Swelling of the head, neck and arms
  • Discomfort in the involved areas
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness

Possible causes of a blockage include:

  • Tumors, most commonly lung tumors
  • Inflammation of or injury to the superior vena cava
  • Excessive blood clotting

A doctor can confirm a diagnosis by imaging studies, such as:

  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the chest
  • X-ray of veins using contrast dye (venography)

Treatment depends on the underlying cause of the obstruction but may include:

  • Maintaining the airway (trachea), if affected
  • Radiation therapy or chemotherapy to shrink a tumor
  • Medications or surgery to dissolve or remove a blood clot
  • Placement of a tube-like device (stent) in the vein
  • Blood thinning medications

Superior vena cava

Illustration of superior vena cava

Superior vena cava is the major vein that drains blood from the head, neck, chest and arms to the heart.

Last Updated: 01/31/2006
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