A superficial venous thrombosis, sometimes called VTE, is a blood clot existing in a vein close to the surface of the skin, commonly in the arms or legs. Unlike deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, a superficial venous thrombosis is less likely to cause serious complications but it can still cause pain and discomfort.
Blood clots and VTE are common, with millions of hospital patients experiencing this complication following procedures.
Signs of superficial venous thrombosis are similar to DVT, and include:
- Redness and swelling
- Feeling of warmth
Blood clots can be caused by anything that slows or stops blood circulation. This can include inactivity, surgery, injury, or inherited factors. Risk factors are similar to those of DVT, including:
- Sitting for a long time, as when you’re driving, flying, or on bedrest
- Injury to a vein from surgery or IV line
- Pregnancy and the first 6 weeks after giving birth
- Birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
- Cancer and some of its treatments
- Heart failure
- Overweight or obesity
- Personal or family history of DVT or embolism
If your doctor suspects you have a superficial blood clot, you may be given one or more of these tests:
- Ultrasound. Sound waves are used to measure the blood flow through your veins and to identify any blood clots.
- Venogram. An x-ray is taken to produce an image of your veins and to identify blood clots.
- CT or MRI scans. Computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provide images of the inside of the body, including the veins.
- Blood tests. Your blood may be tested for an inherited blood clotting disorder. It may also be tested for a substance called D-dimer, which is usually present in patients with blood clots. If you don’t have it, your symptoms are probably not caused by a blood clot.
Superficial venous thrombosis should be treated right away. The goal of treatment is to prevent the blood clot from getting bigger, or forming a DVT and becoming an embolism (breaking off and traveling toward the lungs).
Treatment also aims to keep you from getting more blood clots. Your treatment may include one or more of the following:
- Blood thinner medications. These medications (also called anticoagulants) reduce your blood’s ability to clot. They can’t break up clots you already have, but they can prevent them from getting bigger. They can also prevent new clots from forming. They’re usually taken for at least three months.
- Clot busters. These medications (also called thrombolytics) are given to break up blood clots. Because they can cause severe bleeding, they’re only given in very serious situations.
- Filters. If you cannot take medications, you may have a small filter inserted into a large vein in the abdomen called the vena cava. If a blood clot breaks off, this will reduce the chance of it traveling to the lungs.
- Compression stockings. These can reduce the swelling that happens after a blood clot forms in your leg. The stockings are tighter near the ankle and looser near the top. This helps keep your blood from pooling and clotting.
- Self-care. Your doctor may recommend that you: – Elevate your leg. – Apply a heating pad for 20 minutes every 2 hours. – Keep walking, physical work, and lifting to a minimum.
If you are at risk of developing a superficial venous thrombosis, you can take a few steps to help prevent a blood clot from forming:
- Try to get up and walk around following a surgical procedure
- Take breaks at work to stretch and move around
- Maintain a healthy weight and exercise regime