In medicine, deep vein thrombosis (also known as deep-vein thrombosis or deep venous thrombosis and usually abbreviated as DVT) is the formation of a blood clot ("thrombus") in a deep vein. It is a form of thrombophlebitis (inflammation of a vein with clot formation).
Deep vein thrombosis commonly affects the leg veins (such as the femoral vein or the popliteal vein) or the deep veins of the pelvis. Occasionally the veins of the arm are affected (if spontaneous, this is known as Paget-Schrötter disease). A DVT can occur without symptoms, but in many cases the affected extremity will be painful, swollen, red, warm and the superficial veins may be engorged. The greatest complication of a DVT is that the clot could dislodge and travel to the lungs, which is called a pulmonary embolism. A late complication of DVT is the post-phlebitic syndrome, which can manifest itself as edema, pain or discomfort and skin problems.
According to Virchow's triad, venous thrombosis occurs via three mechanisms: decreased flow rate of the blood, damage to the blood vessel wall and an increased tendency of the blood to clot (hypercoagulability). Several medical conditions can lead to DVT, such as compression of the veins, physical trauma, cancer, infections, certain inflammatory diseases and specific conditions such as stroke, heart failure or nephrotic syndrome. There are several factors which can increase a person's risk for DVT, including surgery, hospitalization, immobilization (such as when orthopedic casts are used, or during long-haul flights, leading to economy class syndrome), smoking, obesity, age, certain drugs (such as estrogen or erythropoietin) and inborn tendencies to form clots known as thrombophilia (for example, in carriers of factor V Leiden). Women have an increased risk during pregnancy and in the postnatal period.
The most commonly used tests for the diagnosis of DVT are a blood test called D-dimers and doppler ultrasound of the affected veins. Sometimes, further testing is required to find the cause of the DVT. In specific cases, an attempt can be made to break down the clot (using thrombolytic agents). To prevent further accrual and formation of new clots with a risk of pulmonary embolism, anticoagulation (blood thinners) is advised (if not possible, an inferior vena cava filter may be used). Prevention of DVT is advised in many medical and surgical inpatients using anticoagulants, graduated compression stockings (also known as thromboembolic deterrent stockings) or intermittent pneumatic compression devices.
Signs and symptoms
There may be no symptoms referable to the location of the DVT, but the classical symptoms of DVT include pain
and redness of the leg
and dilation of the surface veins. In up to 25% of all hospitalized patients, there may be some
form of DVT, which often remains clinically inapparent (unless pulmonary embolism
There are several techniques during physical examination to increase the detection of DVT, such as measuring the circumference of the affected and the contralateral limb at a fixed point (to objectivate edema), and palpating the venous tract, which is often tender. Physical examination is unreliable for excluding the diagnosis of deep vein thrombosis.
In phlegmasia alba dolens, the leg is pale and cool with a diminished arterial pulse due to spasm. It usually results from acute occlusion of the iliac and femoral veins due to DVT.
In phlegmasia cerulea dolens, there is an acute and nearly total venous occlusion of the entire extremity outflow, including the iliac and femoral veins. The leg is usually painful, cyanosed and oedematous. Venous gangrene may supervene.
It is vital that the possibility of pulmonary embolism be included in the history, as this may warrant further investigation (see pulmonary embolism).
A careful history has to be taken considering risk factors (see below), including the use of estrogen-containing methods of hormonal contraception, recent long-haul flying, intravenous drug use and a history of miscarriage (which is a feature of several disorders that can also cause thrombosis). A family history can reveal a hereditary factor in the development of DVT.
Virchow's triad is a group of three factors known to affect clot formation: rate of flow, the consistency (thickness) of the blood, and qualities of the vessel wall. Virchow noted that more deep venous thrombosis occurred in the left leg than in the right and proposed compression of the left common iliac vein by the overlying right common iliac artery as the underlying cause (see May-Thurner syndrome).
The most common risk factors are recent surgery or hospitalization. 40% of these patients did not receive heparin prophylaxis. Other risk factors include advanced age, obesity, infection, immobilization, use of combined (estrogen-containing) forms of hormonal contraception, tobacco usage and air travel ("economy class syndrome", a combination of immobility and relative dehydration) are some of the better-known causes. Thrombophilia (tendency to develop thrombosis) often expresses itself with recurrent thromboses.
It is recognized that thrombi usually develop first in the calf veins, "growing" in the direction of flow of the vein. DVTs are distinguished as being above or below the popliteal vein. Very extensive DVTs can extend into the iliac veins or the inferior vena cava. The risk of pulmonary embolism is higher in the presence of more extensive clots.
The gold standard is intravenous venography, which involves injecting a peripheral vein of the affected limb with a contrast agent and taking X-rays, to reveal whether the venous supply has been obstructed. Because of its invasiveness, this test is rarely performed.
- Homans' test: Dorsiflexion of foot elicits pain in posterior calf. However, it must be noted that it is of little diagnostic value and is theoretically dangerous because of the possibility of dislodgement of loose clot.
- Pratt's sign: Squeezing of posterior calf elicits pain.
However, these medical signs do not perform well and are not included in clinical prediction rules that combine best findings in order to diagnose DVT.
, Scarvelis and Wells overviewed a set of clinical prediction rules
for DVT, on the heels of a widely adopted set of clinical criteria for pulmonary embolism.
Wells score or criteria:
(Possible score -2 to 9)
- 1) Active cancer (treatment within last 6 months or palliative) -- 1 point
- 2) Calf swelling >3 cm compared to other calf (measured 10 cm below tibial tuberosity) -- 1 point
- 3) Collateral superficial veins (non-varicose) -- 1 point
- 4) Pitting edema (confined to symptomatic leg) -- 1 point
- 5) Swelling of entire leg - 1 point
- 6) Localized pain along distribution of deep venous system -- 1 point
- 7) Paralysis, paresis, or recent cast immobilization of lower extremities -- 1 point
- 8) Recently bedridden > 3 days, or major surgery requiring regional or general anesthetic in past 12 weeks -- 1 point
- 9) Previously documented DVT -- 1 point
- 10) Alternative diagnosis at least as likely -- Subtract 2 points
- Score of 2 or higher - deep vein thrombosis is likely. Consider imaging the leg veins.
- Score of less than 2 - deep vein thrombosis is unlikely. Consider blood test such as d-dimer test to further rule out deep vein thrombosis.
In a low-probability situation, current practice is to commence investigations by testing for D-dimer
levels. This cross-linked fibrin degradation product
is an indication that thrombosis
is occurring, and that the blood clot
is being dissolved by plasmin
. A low D-dimer level should prompt other possible diagnoses (such as a ruptured Baker's cyst
, if the patient is at sufficiently low clinical probability of DVT.
Other blood tests
Other blood tests usually performed at this point are:
Imaging the leg veins
, Doppler ultrasonography
, compression ultrasound
scanning of the leg veins, combined with duplex measurements (to determine blood flow), can reveal a blood clot
and its extent (i.e. whether it is below or above the knee
Duplex Ultrasonography,due to its high sensitivity, specificity and reproducibility, has replaced venography as the most widely used test in the evaluation of the disease. This test involves both a B mode and 69 mode image and Doppler flow analysis.
Treatment at home is an option according to a meta-analysis
by the Cochrane Collaboration
. Hospitalization should be considered in patients with more than two of the following risk factors as these patients may have more risk of complications during treatment:
- bilateral DVT, renal insufficiency, body weight <70 kg, recent immobility, chronic heart failure, and cancer
is the usual treatment for DVT. In general, patients are initiated on a brief course (i.e., less than a week) of heparin
treatment while they start on a 3- to 6-month course of warfarin
(or related vitamin K
inhibitors). Low molecular weight heparin
(LMWH) is preferred, though unfractionated heparin
is given in patients who have a contraindication to LMWH (e.g., renal failure or imminent need for invasive procedure). In patients who have had recurrent DVTs
(two or more), anticoagulation is generally "life-long." The Cochrane Collaboration
has meta-analyzed the risk and benefits of prolonged anti-coagulation.
An abnormal D-dimer level at the end of treatment might signal the need for continued treatment among patients with a first unprovoked proximal deep-vein thrombosis.
is generally reserved for extensive clot, e.g. an iliofemoral thrombosis. Although a meta-analysis
of randomized controlled trials
by the Cochrane Collaboration
shows improved outcomes with thrombolysis
, there may be an increase in serious bleeding complications.
In July 2008, the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP) published new evidence-based clinical guidelines for the treatment of venous thromboembolic (VTE) disease which for the first time suggested the use of pharmacomechanical thrombolysis in the treatment of certain cases of acute DVT. Complete 2008 ACCP VTE guidelines can be downloaded at no charge at: TheNewGuidelines.org
Elastic compression stockings
should be routinely applied "beginning within 1 month of diagnosis of proximal DVT and continuing for a minimum of 1 year after diagnosis". Starting within one week may be more effective. The stockings in almost all trials were stronger than routine anti-embolism stockings
and created either 20-30 mm Hg or 30-40 mm Hg. Most trials used knee-high stockings. A meta-analysis
of randomized controlled trials
by the Cochrane Collaboration
showed reduced incidence of post-phlebitic syndrome. The number needed to treat
is relatively high, at 4 to 5 patients needing to have been treated to prevent one case of post-phlebitic syndrome.
Inferior vena cava filter
Inferior vena cava filter
reduces pulmonary embolism and is an option for patients with an absolute contraindiciation to anticoagulant treatment (e.g., cerebral hemorrhage) or those rare patients who have objectively documented recurrent PEs while on anticoagulation, an inferior vena cava filter
(also referred to as a Greenfield filter
) may prevent pulmonary embolisation of the leg clot. However these filters are themselves potential foci of thrombosis, IVC filters are viewed as a temporizing measure for preventing life-threatening pulmonary embolism.
occurs in 15% of patients with deep vein thrombosis (DVT). It presents with leg oedema, pain, nocturnal cramping, venous claudication, skin pigmentation, dermatitis and ulceration
(usually on the medial aspect of the lower leg).
Clinical practice guidelines
by the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP) provide recommendations on DVT prophylaxis in hospitalized patients .
General Medical Inpatients
Regarding general medical inpatients the guidelines state, "In acutely ill medical patients who have been admitted to the hospital with congestive heart failure or severe respiratory disease, or who are confined to bed and have one or more additional risk factors, including active cancer, previous VTE, sepsis
, acute neurologic disease, or inflammatory bowel disease, we recommend prophylaxis with LDUH (Grade 1A) or LMWH (Grade 1A)." Enoxaparin or unfractionated heparin may be used. LMWH may be more effective than UFH. If UFH heparin is used, 5000 U 3 times daily may be more effective.
Since publication of the ACCP guidelines, an additional randomized controlled trial and meta-analysis including the trial have been published. The meta-analysis concluded " Anticoagulant prophylaxis is effective in preventing symptomatic venous thromboembolism during anticoagulant prophylaxis in at-risk hospitalized medical patients. Additional research is needed to determine the risk for venous thromboembolism in these patients after prophylaxis has been stopped." With regards to which patients are at risk, most studies in the meta-analysis were of patients with New York Heart Association Functional Classification (NYHA) III-IV heart failure. Regarding patients at lesser risk of DVT, the trial above and an earlier trial are relevant yet inconclusive.
Chronic renal dialysis patients may be at increased risk of thromboembolism, but randomized controlled trials have not addressed the risk benefit of prophylaxis.
In patients who have undergone surgery
, low molecular weight heparins
(LMWH) are routinely administered to prevent thrombosis. LMWH can only currently be administered subcutaneously by injection. Prophylaxis for pregnant women who have a history of thrombosis may be limited to LMWH injections or may not be necessary if their risk factors are mainly temporary.
Early and regular ambulation (walking) is a treatment that predates anticoagulants and is still recognized and used today. Walking activates the body's muscle pumps, increasing venous velocity and preventing stasis. Intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) machines have proven protective in bed- or chair-ridden patients at very high risk or with contraindications to heparins. IPC machines use air bladders that are wrapped around the thigh and/or calf. The bladders alternately inflate and deflate, squeezing the muscles and increasing blood velocity by as much as 500%. IPC machines have been proven effective on knee and hip surgery patients (a population with a risk as high as 80% with no prophylactic treatment) of developing DVT and PE.
Alternatively, between 150-300mg of aspirin can be taken.
There is clinical evidence to suggest that wearing compression socks or compression tights
while travelling also reduces the incidence of thrombosis in people on long haul flights. A randomised study in 2001 compared two sets of long haul airline passengers, one set wore travel compression hosiery the others did not. The passengers were all scanned and blood tested to check for the incidence of DVT. The results showed that asymptomatic DVT occurred in 10% of the passengers who did not wear compression socks. The group wearing compression had no DVTs. The authors concluded that wearing elastic compression hosiery reduces the incidence of DVT in long haul airline passengers. .
DVTs occur in about 1 per 1000 persons per year. About 1-5% will die from the complications (i.e. pulmonary embolism
DVT is much less common in the pediatric population. About 1 in 100,000 people under the age of 18 experiences deep vein thrombosis, possibly due to a child's high rate of heartbeats per minute, relatively active lifestyle when compared with adults, and fewer comorbidities (e.g. malignancy).