Superior Vena Cava Syndrome

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

View Cancer 101 Slideshow Pictures

What causes superior vena cava syndrome?

The most common cause of superior vena cava syndrome is cancer. Primary or metastatic cancer in the upper lobe of the right lung can compress the superior vena cava. Lymphoma or other tumors located in the mediastinum can also cause compression of the superior vena cava.

Less often, the superior vena cava can become blocked with a blood clot from within. As more invasive medical procedures are being performed on patients, this cause of superior vena cava syndrome is being seen more frequently. Blood clot (thrombus) formation that causes superior vena cava syndrome is a complication of pacemaker wires,dialysis, and other intravenous catheters that are threaded into the superior vena cava.

Historically, and in other parts of the world, infection (syphilis and tuberculosis) is another cause of superior vena cava syndrome. Sarcoidosis (a disease that results in masses of inflamed tissue) may also cause this syndrome.

What are the symptoms of superior vena cava syndrome?

Initially, there are few symptoms, however, over time, symptoms of superior vena cava gradually develop. As the compression becomes more severe, the patient may develop shortness of breath and swelling of the arms and face. The symptoms occur because blood cannot return to the heart.

Without adequate blood return, it is hard for the heart to pump newly oxygenated blood to meet the metabolic needs of the body. If blood cannot return to the heart, it starts to back up and causes swelling of the areas where the backup occurs.

Less common symptoms include:

  • dilation of veins on the skin surface as the body tries to establish new circulatory pathways to bypass the blockage, and a blue tinge to the skin (because the backed up blood doesn't have enough oxygen content)
  • cough,
  • shortness of breath,
  • chest pain, and
  • hoarseness.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/8/2015

Subscribe to MedicineNet's Cancer Report Newsletter

By clicking Submit, I agree to the MedicineNet's Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet's subscriptions at any time.

VIEW PATIENT COMMENTS
  • Superior Vena Cava Syndrome - Symptoms

    What were the symptoms experienced with superior vena cava syndrome in you or a relative?

    Post View 4 Comments
  • Superior Vena Cava Syndrome - Treatment

    What kinds of treatment, including medication, have you or a relative received for superior vena cava syndrome?

    Post View 1 Comment

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors