Superior Vena Cava Syndrome

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Superior vena cava syndrome facts

  • Superior vena cava syndrome is most often caused by compression of the vein (the superior vena cava), that returns blood from the upper body back to the right atrium of the heart by tumor.
  • Symptoms include swelling of the face and arms associated with shortness of breath.
  • Treatment is directed at the underlying cause and consists of various measures aimed at decreasing the severity of the obstruction.

Introduction

The superior vena cava is a large vein located in the upper chest, which collects blood from the head and arms and delivers it back to the right atrium of the heart. If this vein is compressed by outside structures, or if a thrombus or clot develops within it, return blood flow to the heart is impeded. When blood flow to the heart is restricted, the increased pressure in the veins of the face and arms causes edema (fluid buildup) in these areas. This condition is referred to as superior vena cava syndrome.

Because the superior vena cava, like all veins, has a thin wall (there are no muscles in the walls of a vein as compared to the walls of an artery), and because there is little pressure inside the vein, it can be easily compressed by outside structures. The superior vena cava lies next to the upper lobe of the right lung and within the mediastinum [the space that contains the central structures of the chest: the heart, the trachea, the esophagus and the great vessels (aorta, vena cava)]. Abnormalities within any of these structures can cause the compression.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/22/2014

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